The Horrors of Self-Promotion


I HATE FACEBOOK. I hate Twitter. I spend a lot of time on both. At least a solid hour a day. I also maintain a website, have a Tumblr, an Instagram account, a tour website, a tour page, and a YouTube channel. Since I don’t feel comfortable posting much about my personal life, almost the entirety of my time online is spent promoting one of my books. I usually do it somewhat obliquely, using random jokes to deliver the requisite dose of self-serving self-deprecation. But there is no doubt that in every instance, like a Jehovah’s Witness or shady mortgage financier, I am blatantly hawking some aspect of what I have chosen to view as a career.

It reeks of desperation, these pleas, this constant litany: read me, recognize me, buy me, buy me again. On an authorial scale, being relatively unknown and resolutely Mid-list is like spending a few years on the floor of a deafening concert, angling for attention from every quarter, stuck in a sweaty throng of the equally disregarded, ultimately reduced (en masse and from the obstructed view seats) to holding up a lighter and screaming at the bass player–who couldn’t possibly give less of a shit, even if he could hear above the distortion and tinnitus and quart of hastily guzzled Jack Daniel’s.

I have 975 followers on Twitter, an embarrassing pittance for anyone trying to move units. That number rises and falls, but tends to remain fairly constant regardless of what I tweet: funny, political, serious, emotional, or just plain propaganda. I find composing (composting?) a worthwhile thought in the span of 140 characters to be a mostly pointless exercise, the writerly equivalent of being sewn into a sleeping bag with a flashlight and the Dummy’s Guide to Semaphore. I also feel a mixture of contempt and sadness when I see other authors (often friends of mine) typing things like “Here’s my new book trailer!” or “I’ll be appearing at Barnes & Noble on Wednesday!” or “Win a signed copy of something so valueless I’m giving it away for free!” mainly because it’s embarrassing to watch their yearning for bandwidth slam against the indifference of a million kitten-occupied Twitter accounts. And yet I write exactly the same sort of things myself, again and again and again.

I have two Facebook pages; a personal and an author page. My author page has 2,229 “fans,” a large percentage of which seem to hail from Malaysia. I have no idea why. On my personal page, I have 775 friends, most of whom I do actually know, or at least have met at some reading or conference or cocktail party. Although there are plenty I have zero clue about and who can’t possibly know me. Those are the ones who tend to comment the most enthusiastically, which is a disconcerting notion.

Meanwhile, my family has acquired Promo Fatigue Syndrome–a condition associated with reflexive conversation-ending, rude topic-changing, abrupt room-leaving, and a tendency to insist that they have “long since given up reading books of any kind.” Our neighbors rarely come out of their houses. At work, my colleagues shamble by, bleary-eyed with exhaustSEAN. Even the rare sub-group of geeky acolytes and plucked-eyebrow fanboys that once bought Infects T-shirts and You Killed Wesley Payne stickers by the fives and tens decided to block me long ago.

And then, on November 16th, 2011 at 7:55 a.m., a very dangerous critical mass was reached: every single person I ever went to school with, from kindergarten to high school to college, became fully sentient. By which I mean, acquired the vague awareness that I have a book or something out. At noon of the same day a second damning mark was plateaued: each of those classmates independently reached the subconscious but irrevocable conclusion that they have absolutely no desire to hear about any goddamned thing I’ve ever written, ever again.

I don’t blame them one bit.

In fact, I’m almost certain my years-long squat of self-promotion has been entirely pointless. If I could have back every minute I’ve spent on social media and apply it to churning out actual prose, I would probably have finished at least one bestselling swords-and-incest fantasy trilogy instead. Maybe even two. In any case, it’s pretty clear that whoever reads what I post (a diminishing coterie, to be sure) has either already bought whatever book I’m flogging, or never had any intention of doing so in the first place. Everything else is just more white noise, a narcissistic armada of turds floating down the center of the Hudson, or the river of pixels, or the throat of the cybersphere. We’ve all heard it before, seen it before, been pitched everything from Sham Wow to rote sham. We’ve sat through a lifetime of fifteen-second commercials in order to watch the ubiquitous YouTube clip of some Khaki Dad taking a Wiffleball to the nuts. Like everyone else, I am truly and deeply bored by the incessant marketing and self-promotion that comprises a majority of any day spent in front of any screen.

But not nearly as bored as I am by my own.

So why do I keep shoving the collective face between my spread pages? Why do I continually force the communal nose deep into my gluey bindings?

Mainly because publishing a book is an exercise in terror.

Yes, nothing rivals the ennui and impotence that comes with the very real possibility that a week after your book is published, (the culmination of years of obsessive scribbling, mental wreckage, familial damage, and quivering vulnerability) it will be quickly forgotten, widely ignored, aggressively un-reviewed, pulled from shelves, and thoroughly remaindered. In writing there is no safety net, no structure below, just an Amazon ranking and the mystery of Internet buzz. There is the kindness of friends and the randomness of reviews, but they pale in the face of rote indifference.

I had no clue what I was getting into when my first book came out. I barely told anyone. I was embarrassed to. It would have directly contravened my lifelong policy of remaining enigmatically detached from all things that even hinted at vanity, while secretly being very vain–I just wanted the accolades to originate from somewhere less obvious. Not any more. I am now my biggest booster, each sentence a hypo to the cultural mainline filled with blinking promotional neon and liquified thesaurus.

But late at night, when I am alone and naked in our vintage pink-tiled bathroom, I look in the mirror and cringe at the notion of my twenty-year-old self catching a glimpse at the hoop-jumping fool I am now. That young dude would be truly horrified. That young dude would smash furniture and tear shit up. In fact, he’d kick my ass out into the street like Denzel busting a crease in Ethan Hawke, denounce me as a media whore, fling my laptop into the ocean, and then force me to get re-hired at my old construction job, pronto.

The thing is, it wasn’t always this way. Publishers used to do most of the marketing for the books they put out. The best an author could do was finish the last chapter and then show up reasonably sober for a tri-city book tour. The hope was that the book would eventually be widely reviewed, and then take off on the strength of word-of-mouth. But social media has crushed that seemingly innocent past.

I was the last of my friends to get a cell phone, and acted for a long time like not connecting to the internet was some sort of anti-corporate political statement. Or at least a nod toward the many pleasures of being a stubborn anachronism. But those days are long gone. Authors are a manufactured persona, often just as much of a commodity as their books. They are expected to become promotional machines, a brand, an online industry of extra-novel content that pours from the smokestack of their Innate Marketing Genius, while releasing noxious gas from the vent of their publisher’s Zero Marketing Budget. In other words, you are responsible for your own book unless you’re John Grisham. And even he bitches about his promo budget.

It’s essentially the record business model. A label signs 100 bands and tosses a few singles out there, hoping one gets noticed and blows up. Meanwhile, they spend all their cash stroking Mariah Carey, who is going to sell the same shit-train of albums regardless. The label does nothing to promote the 100 unknown bands, and if their singles die–which almost all of them do–so be it. Contracts were made to be canceled. But there are rare unexpected and random hits, and that’s where the money comes from. Suddenly The Black Keys, once an indie/cult fave, sell a single to Volkswagon, and then the label swoops in with a posse of suited publicity tools, VH1 chicks, and comped tables at Spago.

Writers are an odd lot. A volatile mix of bravado, insecurity, insatiable need, unusual discipline, and occasional talent. Despite that fact that writing itself is a lonely, obsessive, and mentally unstable vocation–just the sort of pursuit that lends itself to anti-social habits and behaviors–authors are likewise expected to be great in front 0f a crowd, hilarious at the podium, and engaging at the lectern. They are expected to represent the worth of their prose through expressions of personal charm. Which is, of course, completely ludicrous. But since the collapse of publishing (or at least the explosion of dire, whiny articles about the collapse of publishing), publishers themselves no longer spend the requisite money to advertise the existence of all but a handful of titles.

So, as a self-employed independent contractor of suspect means, you either have to get out there and market yourself, or choose to remain silent and hope for the best. In an industry where 150,ooo titles were published last year, hoping for the best tends to be a failing strategy–if not a bit naive. Therefore one is forced to ask themselves, “If I am not going to make the effort to publicize my own work, why aren’t I a third-year law student instead?” Further, and most damningly, “If people are not reading what I write, why am I writing at all?”

For me, the answer is pure communication–an intellectual exchange. Telling a story is the first step. Having that story read and enjoyed and interpreted and understood is the second. Obviously I would like to do so on the largest scale possible. Forget bestsellers and movie rights and relative fame and huge advances (although all those things would be nice in their relative ways), the bottom line is that if I am not communicating with a sizable group of readers, if I am writing in a vacuum for a static body of acquaintances–spending six hours a day in front of a laptop for ten years suddenly seems like a masturbatory and delusional exercise.

The great white hope of writing is to reach the point where you no longer have to pimp yourself at all, where you tap into a weird alchemy in which you suddenly have enough name recognition and sales that word-of-mouth and momentum do all the work for you. Then you can sit back and troll Facebook, posting cake recipes and cat pictures and acting like your royalties are preordained and that you are way, way too cool to flog yourself ever again–as if you ever had.

Yeah, I want to get there. But mainly because I love writing, I love what I do, and I don’t ever want to go back.

Oh, and by the way, my new book, Wise Young Fool comes out in exactly one week. It’s a raw-throated punk rock black comedy love story. Slated to move a million units. Or at least a couple dozen.

On August 6th, 2013, it all starts over again.






About Sean Beaudoin

Sean Beaudoin (@seanbeaudoin) is the author of five novels, including The Infects and Wise Young Fool. His new short story collection, Welcome Thieves, is just out with Algonquin Books.
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56 Responses to The Horrors of Self-Promotion

  1. Don Mitchell says:

    Thanks for the road map, my man. Would that it were a treasure map.

    Notice I’ve taken advantage of the “Website” option to pimp my own book. But that’s not why I’m commenting. Nope.

    It’s because no matter how much you poke fun at yourself, you’re still a beyond-generous dude. Example: taking some of your own Facebook bandwidth to send props my way. You didn’t have to. You did.

    Um, is this what people call a man-crush? I’d better be careful, at my age.

  2. JLOakley says:

    Good stuff and by the way, I found this post on FB because a writer buddy posted it and yes, my website is checked off in this reply too. I’ve been on the internet for 2 hours. Time to get off and write. (I did finish a little piece for a bookstore publication during this time).

    It is totally crazy out there. I didn’t know what social media was 3 years ago, now I’m on everything. Do try to check in first thing in the morning, then go off to write, revise, and research.

    I don’t spam. I try to have conversations and support other writers. Most importantly I reach out to readers, but that is often done face to face in book clubs or library talks. Marketing we have to go. It’s helped my novel get the recognition it deserves and hopefully for the prequel coming out soon.

  3. I’m going to disagree with you here. A lot. But it’s all said with respect and admiration for your work. And I like you as a person even though we’ve never met.

    “But social media has crushed that seemingly innocent past.” Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that social media is a response to the failures of the not-so-innocent past, the gatekeeper model? The system was broken and becomes more broken every day. Without social media, how would writers promote their work? Flyers on telephone poles?

    “If people are not reading what I write, why am I writing at all?” Because you’re a writer and that’s what writers do. Regardless of whether or not you have an audience (which you are lucky to have), writing is never masturbatory or whatever else you said. It’s part of who you are.

    From what I’ve seen, you’re funny and engaging on social media and you promote not only yourself but others as well. There is nothing wrong with marketing your work, any more than it would be wrong to advertise a small business.

    You don’t need to apologize for self-promotion unless it’s spammy and always all about you, which yours is not. In fact, apologizing is counterproductive and makes other writers feel as if they should apologize, too.

    I’m no longer going to apologize for promoting anything I write. I promote lots of other’s writing (including yours), and if I think my stuff is good, why not ask people to read and share it?

    That said, I think you’re hilarious (even in this piece) and I look forward to everything you write. Without Facebook, I would never have seen it. So enough already with the hand-wringing and self-flagellation, okay?

    • Sean Beaudoin says:

      I knew I could count on you to set me straight, Laurel. Ok, no more self-flagellating. I swear. NO APOLOGIES! And thanks for the kind words.

  4. Caleb Powell says:

    Well done. Thoughts:

    How many social media followers do you need to have before it makes a tangible difference? Probably in the six figures if not seven.

    And self-promoting a book published by a real publisher is a lot easier than self-promoting a “career of tiny pub” or a “career in waiting.” It’s a nice problem to have.

    Good luck and looking forward to your new release.


    • Sean Beaudoin says:

      It’s a good question, Caleb. I think 20k at a minimum on Twitter might have a tangible effect on moving units.

  5. Mike Kelley says:

    Arrived via Twitter. Enjoyed the article though it seemed to sit a little too far into the need to communicate/connect with the general public side of things. Writing should be the byproduct of a mind pushing towards the edge of experience rather than justification and a source of meaning in itself.

  6. d scott meek says:

    Nice job of expressing how I feel most of the time about the bit of writing that’s beyond the writing: trying to get other fucks to read the shit that I wrote. I’m less into it that I probably should be. Nevertheless, I’m gonna keep writing because that’s what we do. And meanwhile, I’m keeping my day job. Funny piece! Best of luck with the book!

  7. Ely says:

    F*-ing brilliant. Made me giggle. Can’t wait to buy some Wise Young Fools. You are too good to not keep doing this!

  8. Hank Cherry says:

    It’s not like baseball because performance enhancing drugs for self promotion don’t really achieve the same statistical achievements. Embellishments, yes. Records? No. Again, wonderfully written expression of what being a writer is like. Thanks yo.

  9. Rachel Pollon says:

    Hi Sean,

    I just wanted to promote my existence with this response.


    And let you know I read this, and related, and what the frick are we supposed to do? Hide in oblivion so we don’t look like assholes?
    Okay, sure that’s an option.
    We have one ride in life may as well make it as uncomfortable and messy as possible. (I’m incredibly on track.)
    These words are meant to convince myself as I write them to you.

    I love your writing so put that in your Facebook pipe and smoke it.


  10. This was hilarious. The part where you didn’t tell anyone about your first book especially resonated with me — I didn’t tell anyone either about my first stories (with a legit publisher) and now I self-publish and tell the world. I’m not at the jaded stage yet so it’s good to know what I have to look forward to. I guess I’ve got a long ways to go.

    Thanks for making my day!

  11. Bonny Becker says:

    Great post, Sean. And mission accomplished: I’m now aware of Wise Young Fowl, oops, Fool. What Laurel said. No need to apologize. Not promoting your books would be like a politician not voting for himself. I know who wants to “run for readership” but what choice do we have? Remember Twain promoted the heck out of himself. (of course, he hated it, too.)

  12. yikes….everything you said….
    and it pertains to us illustrators, as well….

    I’m up to my ears in the paintings for my current picture book and can’t post what’s not published yet….although I periodically post small details from paintings on FaceBook so I won’t completely vanish from everyone I’ve ever knowns’ consciousness, all the while in my heart…thinking o one actually gives a fig.

    Now I do know who YOU are though.
    Cheers, W

  13. Sean:

    You’ve contributed a witty yet meaningful article dealing with the frustrations all writers have to contend with while running on the promotional treadmill.

    Thank you for writing it so well.

    Peter Winkler

  14. Jeffro says:

    Your essays on writing are always spot on and hilarious. Back when I used to write for TNB, I hated the idea of posting a link on my now non-existent Facebook page that announced to my friends, “Hey check out my latest post.” I always felt like such a tool.

    I cringe at self-promotion and recently had the conversation with a friend of mine:

    I understand pimping yourself out like a piece of meat is part of the author game now, but damn it has to suck if you weren’t born a naturally egotistical prick.

    (By the way, I’m looking forward to Wise Young Fool. My first “novel,” in quotation marks, was a punk rock diary of sorts. HR from Bad Brains made a cameo and, not surprisingly, beat the shit out of a member of the audience. The rest of the book the characters just smoked cigarettes and rode skateboards. Really exciting. I need to find that beaut of literary merit from the way back when time machine of 1998.)

    • seanbeaudoin says:

      Hey Jeffro!

      What’s shakin, man?

      Yup, I felt like a complete tool back in the TNB days as well…many good points on the Napier blog.

      HR makes a (okay, by ringtone, but still) cameo in Wise Young Fool as well! You should have serialized your book on TNB…

      • Jeffro says:

        Just life.

        Did HR request (via ringtone) that your protagonist get that PMA?

        My punk rock book — a serial novel? Oh, no. It was pretty terrible, and by “pretty” I mean extremely. I wrote it when I was 16. It was sort of like the movie KIDS without the sex and sexually transmitted diseases. There should be a rule that you aren’t allowed to write a novel until you have stopped reading Emma Goldman essays.

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  16. Kilian Metcalf says:

    Sorry it’s such a burden to you to let your faithful readers know when a new book is out. Of course they should be checking Amazon every week hoping for a new title. In fact, they should keep a list of favorite authors next to the computer and check every day in case something new is available because it’s too much to expect someone who wants to sell you something that you want to buy to tell you when they can do that very thing! Put the burden back where it belongs: right on the back of the reader.

  17. Absolutely hilarious post. Thanks for sharing.

  18. I feel your pain! grins. But from my reading of sales records of successful indie publishers, volume matters the most in the task of promotion — you can promote all you want, but if you don’t have a significant volume of work for readers to chose among, you’re not going to sell in significant numbers. Most indie publishers take off once they’ve put out their 3rd book. So the rule of thumb seems to be that the best promotion you can do is … to publish your next book.

  19. God, this was funny. You are GOOD. You are SO good, that I’m almost intimidated to the point of not wanting to comment. But really did want to tell you how much I enjoyed this post, Sean.

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  21. ATraveller says:

    I’ll be brief ’cause I’m on the IPad.

    You sent out 37 tweets yesterday. For someone who hates being on twitter, you do spend a lot of time there. Much of that is retweets and repeats: I saw the Salon link more than twice, which personally I’d take as an insult. If I didn’t follow it the first time around, why do you think that I need to see it again.

    This is exactly why I stopped following Neil Gaiman. I love him as an author, but he was clogging up my feed with irrelevant stuff and in the end I haven’t even bought his latest book, because I got so fed up with hearing about it. One review a day is enough!

    Perhaps you should divert some of all the time that you spend on twitter and FB into reading books about the psychology of persuation. Look up Robert Cialdini f.ex. Also, check out what Lindsay Buroker is doing on twitter – I love her tweet, and it’s not that personal. Finally, when you’ve done both of the above, and are ready for it, ask your family what you did wrong, and how you can do different.

    Best of luck to you. Maybe I’ll follow you in a month :-)

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  23. Jo says:

    Just found this post through the Passive Guy link, and if your book’s as good as your blog, I’m buying it!

    • Sean Beaudoin says:

      It is, Jo. It totally is! Normally, I’d reserve that exclamation for a self-serving Twitter post, but I’m branching out….

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  25. My son said he is sick of Face Book because nearly everyone is using it to promote something. That’s the only reason I have an account and I rarely even check it any more. Blogging is the only social media with which I find any level of comfort.

    Self-promotion sucks. I try to do Book-promotion. I believe so much in the memoir that I wrote–that it has the potential to change people’s lives for the better by reading it–that I find the nerve and energy to promote IT, not ME.

    Thanks for this post. I’m writing a novel and dread facing another round of promotions…

  26. Jan Bear says:

    I get it. You make a little joke. And it’s funny, too. This is the first of your work I’ve read, and so I’m assuming that most of it is exaggerated: your friends and family look forward to hearing from you; your school friends are awed that you’re a novelist; and your social media accounts are active with followers who really enjoy your conversation.

    Let me posit a hypothetical author who would be accurately described by this post. (I know some, and they don’t know who they are.) The problem is scattershot marketing — not knowing who their audience is or, worse, thinking it’s everybody and blasting out their pleas to “buy my book” to anybody they run across on the street. What a waste of time, energy, and money.

    Much better for an author to be aware of who the right audience is and ignore all the others. Limit social media engagement to just a few outlets, based on where that audience gathers and the author’s own capacity for online small talk.

    You’re absolutely right that building your backlist is the best marketing you can do. Make connections with potential fans, writers in the same genre, and people who are influential in the arena.

    This is for the authors who may not know that. I suspect you’re doing all that already.

  27. Joan Reeves says:

    You told the truth, and the truth hurts. But it also makes you laugh like a toddler being tickled.

  28. There are millions of shells along the beaches of life. Sometime, once in a while, and who really knows why. someone sees one they like and they pick it up. It’s not much different than the rest, but in it they find a moment of joy.

    Welcome to the writing world…maybe someday I’ll have a shell out there on that beach. Rest assured, I’ll be sitting nearby pretending to watch the sun set, trying hard to not be to obvious in mentioning the discolored, but nice looking shell nearby…

  29. Ella says:

    Wow, step away from the ledge. Stop wasting time on social media and write, when you’re done with that write some more, and then keep writing. Social media is only good for connecting with fans and does nothing for sales.

  30. Shiv says:

    Truly insightful. Just finished my first(out in November) and I find myself struggling with exactly these questions. To be(a self-pimp) or not to be. And of course, why.

    Still don’t have answers, but it’s heartening to know I’m not the only one with these questions. Although I suspect, that you got that right too. Sad, but true.

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  33. I LOVE love loved this! This is exactly how i feel every single day. I started my own webpage and excitedly posted it on FB for all my friends and family to happily subscribe and share my posts and then…nothing.
    How rude i thought! 4 years of giving free advice and helping everyone and nothing in return to help me out. What does it take to click Share or to Retweet? Seriously? But i read posts like this and feel better and keep telling myself to keep-swimming (writing) and just enjoy what you do. It sux to think if your close friends and family don’t want to help you out or read your stuff, why would someone in Australia? Thanks again!! :)

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