Monday, January 12, 2009

Can the Introverted Writer Succeed?


by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


I have been pondering the sticky issue of looks, personality and success and how this translates in the world of publishing.

I remember reading a story in the New York Times a few years ago on the anatomy of a bestseller and it compared two books coming out that year that had received huge advances and marketing budgets - one was The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova and the other was (and this is prophetic...) something I can't even remember. Anyway the gist of the article was that the author of The Historian had been willing to do a great deal of publicity and 'be out there' while the other author was virtually a recluse. While The Historian went on to make millions the other book sunk like a stone despite all the publisher money thrown at it. The moral of the story (I think) was that to be a bestseller a writer had to throw aside introversion to be successful. Basically, this article suggested, a writer could no longer afford to sit behind a typewriter or a computer. Nowadays that's a no-brainer but still it got me thinking about the thorny question of writer personality (and let's face it looks) and success.


Now I'm not the kind of person to hang out at the bar at conferences all night and I'm totally crap at networking but I would hardly be called introverted. I'm more of a dinner with friends and red wine kind of girl and though conferences can and do overwhelm me at times I suck it up as I know it is important for my career. the question is just how important? Leave aside the whole 'the writing is always the most important thing' - let's just accept that shall we - then what comes next? How does a writer's 'popular persona' help or hinder her (or him)?


So throw aside you political correctness and ponder this question...is it easier to be an attractive outgoing writer than a shy, 'more homely' one?


Perhaps it's a crass question but not one I think that is without foundation - especially when photographs are on book jackets and websites and your personality is judged in a range of venues - from online blog entries to in-person panel presentations. How would some of the literary stars of yesteryear fare in our current media-centric environment? Can a writer even afford to be introverted these days? How much is publishing success like a throwback to high school - when many yearned to be the prettiest and bubbliest of them all?
What do you all think?

20 comments:

  1. I agree. Authors now must develop a public persona the same way entertainers, policians. artists and athletes do. In a possitive sense, it makes our brains develop new pathways and keeps us mentally active. As for looks, a good haircut and clothes that fit make a big difference.

    http://maggiebishop1.tripod.com

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  2. Great post, Claire!

    I've always been very shy, but I've forced myself to be more outgoing. I'm comfortable at conferences now, probably because I've met so many people online that they feel like old friends when I finally meet them in person.

    The wallflower in me, however, still balks at public speaking.

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  3. We all know that introverted authors will succeed if the work finds an audience. That is the secret to success--lots of readers with the price of the book in their pockets and who tell their friends. I always wonder out of all of the copies of The Da Vinci Code sold, how many were actually read by the owner. Can the work find an audience if you don't go out and find them? That's really the question. It's the most maddening question I confront.

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  4. I agree that personal promotion is a must in today’s publishing environment. And for those outgoing and charismatic authors whose personalities are as engaging as their books (Barry Eisler for example), self promotion can be a tiny bit easier. But I also believe a great deal of the success or failure of any book lies in the hands of the distribution and marketing expertise of the publisher. A great book published by a small press with little distribution or industry marketing clout is on an uphill journey from the start. In that example, you can self promote until you are as blue in the face as a Smurf, and the only thing it will do is turn you into an introvert with low sales numbers.

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  5. While I sympathize, I think there are writers who use "introvert" as an excuse not to promote their work. There's a wide range between "introverted" and "agorophobic" or "afriad of public speaking." By definition, an introvert recharges his energy by being alone; an extrovert draws energy from others. Most people would think I'm an extrovert, as I always have something to say and I'm usually in the middle of whatever is going on at work. What they don't see is, once I leave work, I generally go home and stay there. I write, read, and watch an occasional ballgame, all solitary activities. I rarely seek out attention when I do go to a social event. But, if I'm asked to give a talk, I'll do it happily, and enjoy it.

    Some people are horribly shy and virtually unable to stand in front of others and speak. That's a problem for anyone, but can be crippling for someone with promotional responsibilities. I feel for those folks. It's must be much like being a politician in some ways: the skills needed to get elected are not the same as the skills needed to govern effectively.

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  6. Thanks for all the comments. As you all note, self-promotion is critical but I agree with Joe that distribution and sales force backing from your publisher is critical (as obviously is the writing!). Too bad it's one of things we end up having the least control over - the publisher aspect that is (not the writing obviously!)

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  7. As authors, we’re selling a product. Writing is art, but selling writing is all business. So, let’s re-cast the question a few different ways:

    Can the introverted retailer succeed?
    Can the introverted employee negotiate a raise?
    Can the love-struck introvert propose marriage?

    In each case, the answer is, “Of course they can!” But first one must suck it up and do what’s necessary. The alternative is to give up and guarantee failure.

    By way of full disclosure, I should admit up-front that I am Mr. Extrovert; shyness is not a problem with me. There’ve been more than a few occasions when my wife has begged for me to be at least a little shy. When I first started, I figured that the whole book tour thing would be a slam-dunk. I’d get up in front of the audience, I’d do my shtick, audiences would love me, and books would fly off the shelves.

    Well, all but that last part proves to be true. People laugh at the punch lines, applaud when I’m done, and then the vast majority of the audience will thank me for the entertainment, and then leave without buying a book. Or, even more painful, if the event is in a bookstore, they leave with someone else’s book—the one they’d come to buy in the first place.

    I’m twelve years, six books, and six movie deals into this writing gig, and here’s one of the most valuable tidbits I’ve learned: Booksellers sell books; authors don’t. At a standard bookstore signing outside of my home town, if I get a crowd of 25, I feel like a rock star. I love doing panels at conferences, but even there, with an audience that is primed to buy the kinds of books I write, the competition is such that a dozen or so books sold feels like a successful outing. At the end of the day, as an author, I can sell a trickle of books.

    But to make a difference, I need to sell tens of thousands of books—or at least to create the potential for doing so. The publisher’s job is to build a deep enough distribution network, via their sales force, that this potential exists. The first step is for them to get my book into the stores, whether it’s one copy or thirty. From there, readers will determine the success of the book. My marketing role—to the degree that I can have any effect at all—is to make a personal connection with the booksellers, and that’s where store signings are important. Even in this age of BookScan and automated reordering, there’s still no replacement for hand selling.

    As for hanging out at the bar—my favorite place to be at any conference—I think the chief benefit is the people you meet. I’m not talking “networking” here, although I guess it qualifies as such. I’m talking about meeting really cool people (and the occasional jerk) who just happen to be in the same business as I. Readers are there, too, and I intentionally do whatever I can to include them in the conversations I’m having. That’s more personal connection.

    At the end of the day, I think that the personal connection is king. People will drive a couple of extra miles to go to a dentist they like, or to a god groomer they’ve known for years. Similarly, I think readers will take a chance on a writer they think is a “nice guy,” just as booksellers might cut a break for the author who showed interest in them.

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  8. John,
    You wasted a perfectly good blog here, but it's all so true.

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  9. I always joke that if Patricia Highsmith was trying to get published today, she'd never get in the door due to her legendary terrible temperament. But then, I'm not entirely certain that's true-placement and publisher promotion are king, and I'm not so certain anymore that touring makes a difference. Once you've met the booksellers, that is, and established a relationship with them. Because after all, most of our fellow authors have also met them and established a relationship, and at the end of the day they're going to recommend books they liked regardless of how they felt about the author. One new author has done very little in the way of promotion personally, in fact she has yet to show up and collect an award, but she's dominating the bestsellers lists. So I question how much that really matters at the end of the day.

    Also, apparently more books sell today in venues like supermarkets and superstores where there is no bookseller making recommendations.

    I think it's like American Idol in some respects- if they want to make you a star, they will, personality aside. As for that other book that failed, I wonder how much was due to the author's reclusiveness, and how much to the content of the book itself. I'm shocked sometimes by the books that seven figure contracts are thrown at--books that are probably beautifully written, but feature subject matter that might attract a niche audience at best.
    But great post, Clare. See you in the bar ;)

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  10. My first year as a published writer was a bit of a learning curve for me. I learned to don what I call an "author look" that includes getting my hair done, makeup, and certain outfits. I think I even put on an author personality, which is slightly more outgoing than my usual self. It involves smiling more and reaching out beyond my comfort zone. I love conferences because there's always a sense that all the introverts have been let outside to play. We have so much fun! I do love it when the author's picture is put on the back of the book--I like to get a connection with the person's voice I'm reading. I've loved being a published author because it has actually taught me how to be less of an introvert, through necessity. I used to get almost sick when I had to make presentations. Now I usually sail through them.

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  11. And just for the record, I meant to type "dog groomer"; not "god groomer". I couldn't figure out how to edit the comment after it was posted. :-/

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  12. Once you find a good god groomer, it's tough to go to anyone else, John. I use the same one for all my gods ;)

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  13. Re' JOhn Gilstrap's comment about conferences, I attended my first Bouchercon last fall, and my book purchases since then have definitely been affected by the impressions I got of the authors I was able to speak to, or hear speaking on panels. I think there's a definite correlation between wanting to read someone you if you enjoyed lsitening to them speak, or found their personality appealing.

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  14. As others have mentioned, I don't think all the personal appearances in the world will make too much difference. Sure, it helps build your rep with the handsellers, always a good thing. But you can write the best book in the world and it is all going to boil down to two factors:
    Print run.
    Publisher involvement.

    With computers "guiding" the big box stores on how many books to order, based on the previous book's sales, and the trend to order one less than before for each store, all to avoid the dreaded returns, print runs are going down, down, down.

    It was common way back when to print in excess of a 100k, then throw the books out there like spaghetti and see what stuck. If you sold through, you were a rock star in the making, and you had a chance to hit the big time. Now, however, new authors, and even established authors are seeing print runs of low 5 figures. And established authors are seeing beloved series being dropped, because of the lowered numbers, all due to big box computer ordering.

    It is much harder to Break Out if you have a track record. Publishers know this, and I think that is why they are hesitant to put advertising dollars behind any midlist authors.

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  15. That is so depressing Robin! I've heard people refer to that computer-generated ordering process as the "death spiral". I've heard authors talk about the fact that they need to change their names when they start a new book so that they're not identified with some previous computer tracking ID. It doesn't make sense to me that this is the way the publishing business model is set up. No wonder the industry is struggling.

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  16. From a bookseller point of view, looks mean very little (although it's nice if you're clean), but attitude is everything.

    You can be shy, people understand. They're shy about approaching you, since you're living their dream. Don't forget that!

    However, we had one author who sat behind her books at the table and knitted rather than actively get involved with her readers, and that sent the message that she wasn't interested in promoting her books. Not the best approach, perhaps.

    The real killer, though, is ego. When you give the customer the impression that you're condescending to favor them with your presence, that's deadly. Word of mouth is a real marketing process. If you're pleasant, word gets out. If you're snotty, ditto.

    I know touring is a nuisance, it's exhausting and irritating and it cuts into writing time. But if you show up and you smile (even if you don't mean it) and you make a good-faith effort, that can turn the tide with your sales.

    My two cents, anyway.

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  17. Jeez, Fran, you booksellers are SO demanding! I mean, all this AND we're expected to shower?! ;)
    Next time I stop by Seattle Mystery, I'm bringing my knitting.

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  18. Gosh you've all been busy commenting while I was in the car back from Tahoe. I've had lots of tips from my four year olds about personality though:) But I agree John G - you could have done a great blog:) on this topic and I think everyone has made fabulous points here. I think that's the most frustrating aspect of it - you could promote and entertain up the wazoo and still not sell more than a trickle given the way the industry is going! Thanks for all the great feedback and food for thought. My next book is going to be called "The God Groomer" and it will have to feature a woman knitting...

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  19. Back to the point of wondering whether authors of old would make it today in our image conscious, media-verse...no. Then again, and I think the world is not the worse for it.

    On the other hand, if they learn how to use the new media online, and figure out a way to use a virtual self via the internet to market themselves, then maybe they could make a huge impact in that realm. Although it may be only within the Second Life world or something like that.

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  20. Oh, and I also wanted to mention Dana's thing about the introverted extrovert. I'm kinda like that too. I enjoy performing and public speaking, but to be honest have a really hard time in small talk and building strong personal relations. After a conference, show, class, or whatever where I have spoken to any number of people, I'd prefer to go home and sit down with a nice glass of wine and relax to mellow jazz music as opposed to going to a bar and mingling. But if mingling is necesary, I'll do it...as long as there is a nice Abbey Ale, or at least a fancy porter available.

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