Shameless: on self-promotion

The Quill’s Agony Editor advice column tackles the shame and awkwardness some writers when promoting their books via social media.

I’ve often told newer writers that there’s two stages to being a writer: create art, then edit and craft it. But there’s three stages to being at author: create art, craft it, then sell it. Publishing is a business for everyone involved. And to publish is to “make public”, so what are you doing if not taking your ideas public? The art part of the whole endeavour is fun for me. The rest? Meh.

I have tried various levels of book promotion online, and I will tell you this: it works, mostly. Not spectacularly, but generally. My book Glimpse actually made it onto a bestseller list, in part because I supported the book heavily in the early days of social media — including its own stand-alone app on iPhone (I know!). That said, we’re talking about Canadian poetry here, and the difference to my pocketbook was negligible. But it sure did get a lot of press. And books I’ve supported less (my little psycho book Diversion that is actually pretty awesome, but relatively unread) have quietly disappeared. Perhaps more than anything, promoting your work online is something positive “to do” during a time plagued by doubt, boredom, and agonizing waits.

Am I good at it? Sure. Do I feel comfortable doing it? Not entirely. That said, I look at it this way: It’s like any party or event or obligation you don’t want to go to or perform at… Once you’re there, you just keep your head down, do the work, and power through.

It’s like finally getting on stage after a bowel-liquifying bout of stage fright behind the curtains. You step into the light and just leave it all behind because you have a job to do. And the truth is, once you’re in it, it’s fine. Leave the doubt for later, lying awake two months later wondering if you made a fool of yourself. Do the work now and sell the damn book.

Dear Agony Editor,

When it comes to promoting the work of other writers on social media, I have zero shame. I’m a screaming cheerleader. But when it’s time to promote my own work, I clam up. I’d like to get better at self-promotion, but shaking my own pompoms makes me feel like a cheeseball. How do I get over this?


Little No Peep

On rejection, time, and success… and racism

My old pal, and one of the original book bloggers, Maud Newton posted on Twitter about turning 50 (’71 babies UNITE!) and just publishing her first book. She hints that life happens and books come when they can. Don’t give up is her message. A good message. And I’m glad she didn’t. Now read this saga: Deesha Philyaw, a black woman who nearly swept the year’s literary awards, was rejected over and over for…. uh… reasons? Long way to go, publishing. Congratulations, Deesha. Glad you didn’t give up.

“In advocating for Deesha,” Philyaw’s agent, Danielle Chiotti, told me, “it was crucial to make sure that the truth of her stories was allowed to shine.”

Chiotti targeted a wide range of editors, from the big five New York trade publishers to smaller presses. For the first month, rejections rolled in. Many employed that time-honored publishing boilerplate: Philyaw’s collection, editors said, just wasn’t a good fit for their houses. “It’s hard,” said Chiotti, “not to wonder what is really behind the phrase not a good fit.”

Going down a Scrabbit hole

I used to consume Scrabble like some people consume meth. It was really the only game that ever held my attention, other than chess. I played every day. I seldom ended a two person game with fewer than 400 points. A bad game was one with no bingos. I played so much and so often, online and off, that I eventually had to just give it up cold turkey, as I’d done years before playing chess. I got so deep into it, I’d play first thing in the morning on waking up, like a smoker with that cigarette. The headspace was somewhere between addiction and OCD, which are really related, I suppose, in terms of control. Anyway, here’s an article delving into how the rules should be applied. … … … … No, it’s YOUR leg that’s shaking under the table.

Can you play the word FART in Scrabble? The short answer calls on the old adage: your house, your rules. The long answer, investigating the question of exactly which words are valid, is much more interesting. Like language itself, Scrabble’s list of playable words is living and evolving, even branching into new subspecies if you extend that metaphor. Attempts to make hard rules about what’s allowed reveal myriad edge cases, inconsistencies, and contradictions. Of course, the real question isn’t about FART at all, but more offensive words. Ultimately, the history of the Scrabble dictionary and its most controversial entries is both twisty and still unfolding.


Did you also ruin your kids for reading?

This article hits a few nerves. I have a large variety of children in my life and about half of them are readers. Of those directly around me, the eldest, a woman of 23, is a reader, the next a young man of 20 is not. The 18-year-old fellow reads constantly, but mostly the same novels over an over, and the 13-year-old would-be skate punk does not go near anything that isn’t illustrated in Japan.

I can’t tell you why some will read and some won’t. They all got read to as babies and children, they all had scads of books available — but at some point, some of them stopped. I can only hope they’ll come back, and suspect they will in some ways, but the entire delivery method may have changed by then.

Listen, I throw my hands up. They’re not dead. They have enough pocketed pizza for snacks. Their shoes get replaced every six months as their toes come up against the leather. They’re one-by-one making it to adulthood with only minor traumas. Given the state of things these days, I feel like that’s the bar I’m shooting for.

From birth to about eight years old, it all went fine: I tried some of the stuff I had loved as a kid, and they found that too boring, but it didn’t matter, because hark, new books are written constantly, and the fountain of Wimpy Kid is, like the one in scriptures, ever flowing, its waters in perpetual motion (plus, did you see the latest film? It’s genuinely, stone-cold-classic good). Both kids got into the Maze Runner books at about the same time as they decided it was beneath their dignity to be read to together, and if there is an act of greater parental devotion than to read the entire, turgid trilogy, then go back to the beginning and read it again; I don’t know what that would look like.