The Lure of “Exposure” For Writers

There’s been lots of buzz lately on-line about how often even established authors get requests to submit their writing for free, or even speak somewhere for free.

The lure is “exposure.”

These pieces make me wince with recognition.  I’ve been publishing fiction and nonfiction about children of Holocaust survivors for over thirty years and I’ve keynoted three international Holocaust conferences.  I was traveling to Florida for a conference not so long ago, and months in advance contacted a local Holocaust Museum to let them know I’d be in town.  I asked if they’d like me to speak there about my work’ given its recognition in the U.S. and abroad.

They did.  But they had no interest in paying me even a token speaking fee for my time.  Why?  Because they insisted speaking there would get me good “exposure.”

I explained that I wasn’t a newbie, that speaking was work, that I planned all my talks and readings extensively.  After all, I was a writer and this was my business, not a hobby.  They didn’t bother replying.

I guess they thought I was nervy to ask to be compensated for my time.  I’m happy to report, though, that this happens to me rarely.  Now and then a new magazine might ask me to submit a story and say they’d be happy to “consider” it.  I thank them for their interest, and say I don’t write “on spec.”

If an editor knows my work well enough to ask me for a piece, I’m delighted to edit it as much as necessary to make it meet her or his requirements.  For one recent anthology, I did almost ten drafts of a story because I knew the editor, Derek Rubin was on target with his suggestions and I wanted to work with him to shape the story into something successful and polished.  He was going to take the story once it was “done” and I loved working with such a gifted editor.

promisedBut I don’t have the time anymore to supply people with material they can reject–that’s exposure I don’t need.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.

(updated 7/25/2015)

The Writer’s Ultimate Guide to Social Media

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At every writers’ conference I’ve been speaking at lately, the hottest topic has been social media.  Wannabe and established writers flock to these sessions like deathly Coronado seeking those seen golden cities.

They seem convinced that with the right information, they can use these new tools to promote themselves into writing stardom.  And fast, too.

Any why shouldn’t they be? Session after session, book after book, writing blog after writing blog all seem to promise that it you figure out the way to use Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram and Facebook and algorithms and SEO, you’ll hit the jackpot.  Your books will be in the Top 100, you’ll have tens of thousands of followers and customers if not more–hell, you might even develop your own lifestyle brand.  Just read X’s blog or book and see how she did it……

But it’s not possible for everyone to score big, is it?  And just like all the other other promotional fads of recent years like blog tours and Skyping to book groups, for example, this heavy focus on social media for authors can just as likely waste their time and divert them from their writing.

Americans love quick fixes and snake oil, always have.  It’s not surprising, then, that so many writers are following what’s going to be a false lead for most of them.  What a temptation to imagine yourself just one hashtag away from fortune and fame…

Writing is intensely competitive, like it or not. It’s hard to have a writing career of any kind and not compare yourself to other writers; that’s endemic in the business.  You’ll always find  someone selling more books, appearing at more venues, winning more prizes, making more money than you are, getting better reviews.

But things have only gotten worse now that publishing is easier and more and more people just like you, it seems, are getting rich because they have the secret.

According to the New York Times, “A small but growing body of evidence suggests that excessive social media use can lead to an unhealthy fixation on how one is perceived and an obsessive competitiveness.”

We writers have enough ways to make ourselves miserable without even getting out of bed–hell, some of us probably can do that in our sleep. Who needs more help?

Lev Raphael’s most recent book is a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence, and police militarization: Assault With a Deadly Lie.

Promoting Your Book Untraditionally

Writing is an art.  Writing is a business.  Sometimes the business takes too much time from writing, but sometimes careful promotion pays off.

My most successful book marketing of all my twenty-four books came with the 19th, the memoir/travelogue My Germany.  It explores the role Germany played in my life as a Jewish writer with Holocaust survivor parents.

It was published by my first choice, The University of Wisconsin Press, which does gorgeous trade books and superb marketing.

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But I planned my own campaign, too.  I looked for all the German Studies and Jewish Studies programs in the country, studied each one, and wrote individual, personalized emails to various professors in both fields.  It took time and consideration, but it wasn’t back-breaking work by any means.

The response was terrific and I’ve ended up touring on and off for four and a half years at colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada. I’ve also done readings and spoken at German cultural institutions, museums, synagogues and churches, and even The Library of Congress. Thanks to my publisher, the Jewish Book Council picked up the book and I appeared at a string of Jewish Book Fairs, too, but my own efforts ended up garnering me two expenses-paid tours all across Germany.

I already had a platform as one of the earliest Jewish-American authors of what’s called The Second Generation, so that helped enormously.  I wasn’t an unknown.  But a platform isn’t a guarantee, just a starting place.  I did my research and it paid off beyond what I expected.  And so I tell budding authors, “Is there a non-traditional way you can promote your work, aside from trying to do signings or reading in bookstores?  Who is your audience?  Try to find them, and then maybe they’ll find you.”

Location, Location, Location

Writers and other publishing types love to give new writers advice about how to be successful.  I find these columns and blogs in my Facebook feed at least daily if not more often.

But there’s one subject they never mention: location.

Despite the Internet, despite Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Tumblr and all the rest of the ways to reach, create, and seduce fans, where you park your laptop can be as important as what you write and how you promote yourself.  Publishers are gaga about social media, but they’re always touting something new.  Before tweeting it was blog tours and before that book trailers.

Life as a writer can be very different in a city with lots of traditional media.  Even though they’re declining, newspapers can still give you inimitable coverage in reviews, features, and interviews.

Likewise, being able to appear on many radio stations still makes a difference in getting the word out locally to help build your audience before you break big.

And if you’re in a media nexus like New York, you’re more able to make face-to-face connections with other writers, with reviewers, with editors and agents at parties, book signings and readings.  These are precious contacts that writers living in East Podunk just can’t make happen for themselves.  Random contacts at summer writing workshops and yearly conferences aren’t the same thing.

Being in a big city also means lots of colleges and universities.  They offer the opportunity of speaking gigs and something else: invitations to teach at writing workshops.  That world is pretty much a series of closed circles.  A writer I know who runs one in the New York area confided that she only invited her friends in the New York area.  Other writers who make various circuits say they see the same people over and over.  If someone breaks in, she’s usually a star, not a newbie.

Of course, being born into a family of writers trumps everything: That’s the ultimate good location.

Success As A Writer Is Soooooo Unpredictable

Poor newbie writers.  Everywhere they turn, someone’s telling them how to be successful.  Go indie!  Publish traditionally!  The advocates of each path offer mind-numbing statistics to prove their points.  It’s as frantic as those middle-of-the-night infomercials for exercise machines that will trim belly fat in only ten minute sessions, three times a week.

Of course, these machines are modeled for you by men and women with killer abs and minimal body fat.  You and I will never look like that unless we give everything up and hire live-in trainers.  And even then, as the coach said in Chariots of Fire, “You can’t put in what God left out.”

I’ve lost my patience with super-successful indie or traditionally-published authors telling the world to publish and promote your books the way they did because look how great things turned out for them.  Each side reports the benefits of what they’ve done with certainty and conviction, and of course they’re either best-selling authors on the newspaper lists or best-selling authors on Amazon.  Or both.

First-time authors sometimes publish big with a New York press, and sometimes they make it big going indie (and possibly go bigger switching to legacy publishing).  It’s all a crap shoot.

Most authors will never reach the heights of these newly-minted experts, and not through any fault of their own.  It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how good your book is, luck and timing are key ingredients that can’t be corralled.  Books have their own karma.  The right book at the right time published in the right way booms. We have no control over how our books succeed or fail, but we can control how good they are before they reach readers.

But nobody can predict it’s going to happen.  And the authors who share their glorious experiences need to realize that though they may want to inspire and enlighten wannabes, at some level, they just make the rest of us drool or wish we’d listened to our parents and gone into something less unpredictable like Accounting.

The author of 25 books in many genres, Lev Raphael has taken his twenty years of university teaching online to offer unique creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com

Instagram Authors?

The New York Times recently reported that fashion designers like Jason Wu and Diane von Furstenberg are turning to Instagram for inspiration and to take the pulse of their fans.  They monitor where and how fans are wearing their designs and also poll fans for opinions and suggestions for their work.

The iPhone app is apparently “generating 25 times the level of engagement of other social media platforms.”  So when will publishers start pushing their authors to switch to this hot new social medium that’s outpacing Facebook and Twitter?

Think of the possibilities!  Authors could find out where and when fans are reading their books.  They could post and enhance photos of themselves on tour and at work. They could post images of how they imagine their characters, seek advice about book covers, and generally engage with their fans 25 times more than they do already on any other social medium and have their photos instantly posted to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Posterous and Tumblr.

Every aspect of their lives, from morning to night, could be photographed and commented on.  Best of all, the Instagram community doesn’t seem to generate the kind of snark other platforms do.

And if they plunged into the new, new thing, they could also catch up with the shifting social media landscape, discovering why Instagram is so hot, why Facebook acquired it for one billion dollars, and why it has this stellar track record, as Kelly Lux reports on her blog:

  • Launched on October 6, 2010
  • #1 in the App Store within 24 hours of launch
  • iPhone App of the Week
  • Holds the record as quickest to reach 1 million downloads, occurring on December 21, 2010
  • Launched 7 new languages
  • An Instagram photo made the cover of the Wall Street Journal
  • Surpassed 25 million users in early March, 2012

The possibilities for authors and their fans are endless, and publishers will no doubt be relentless in chasing after the next Holy Grail of PR.

If they’re not doing so already.