The art (and artlessness) of self-promotion

Woman reading book in library. (Getty images)
Woman reading book in library. (Getty images)

A few weeks ago, my second book (and first novel) was released. Since my publisher is a small press and its publicity budget even smaller, most of the marketing work has been up to me.

I’m trying to get myself into self-glorification gear. But my cognitive clutch is stiff. As I compose emails to events coordinators at local bookstores politely but urgently exhorting them to sponsor a reading, I stall out. After all, there are dozens — make that hundreds — of novels that I know to be better than mine, books that will have a profound impact on readers’ understanding of the world, or at least of themselves.

Given that, on what possible grounds should I be urging people to read my book?

“Because I wrote it” feels like an inadequate answer.

“Because we’re friends” is a better response, but only to the people who actually know me.

“Because you might like it” is true, but hardly compelling.

On a recent drive, my husband and I brainstormed around what visual image might best represent me. A bunch of cilantro?

I have none of the traits or skills required for effective self-promotion. My use of social media is intermittent and unsystematic. Smart self-marketers tweet and post to Instagram regularly, and not just about themselves. They generously promote the work of others, share images and videos that are beautiful or funny or, gulp, heartwarming. They win trust and likes and followers and even occasionally form real-world relationships through conscious, deliberate personal brand-building.

But I have — I am — no brand.

For starters, I have no logo. On a recent drive, my husband and I brainstormed around what visual image might best represent me. A bunch of cilantro? An array of half-drunk cups of tea scattered around the house? An eagerly removed brassiere draped over a kitchen chair? A slippery, teetering stack of dated New Yorkers, winter soup recipes, and Land’s End catalogs? None of these scream “literary genius.”

And we couldn’t come up with a slogan either.

“Sorry” — a word I utter (and sometimes sincerely) multiple times per day for sins ranging from forgetting to turn off the coffee maker to asking too many questions of whoever I’m talking to — sounds, well, too apologetic.

“Just curious” is indeed a dominant driver of my behavior. But my curiosity (avid about people and Arctic adventure and chicken-cooking techniques; non-existent about botany or the Bible) is far too selective for this slogan to feel like truth in advertising.

“I actually don’t think I ask too many questions,” though true, is defensive, and that’s never a good tone to strike in messaging.

Perhaps the answer is this simple: Writing, as Stephen King famously said, is “telepathy,” and that’s pretty cool. Reading and being read is a form of mutual discovery with people we never have and never will meet.

Years ago a literary journal published a personal essay of mine that opens with an account of the numerous UFO sightings that occurred near my Michigan home between 1966 and 1968. In writing it, the prospect of alien encounters was a mere jumping-off point, a metaphor for the displacement I’d felt during those years. But for a man from Dayton, Ohio — the author of three self-published books about extra-terrestrials — those initial paragraphs led him to hope that I could fill a gap in his expansive knowledge about one specific encounter a farmer from Dexter, Michigan allegedly had with an unidentified spacecraft.

So here’s my pitch: Let someone else’s mind into yours. Read a book, any book.

“Based on your article,” he wrote in an email to me a few days ago, “I believe you may have the answer that I am looking for, or know the source where it exists.”

I didn’t, of course. But my ignorance didn’t stop us from having a lively conversation about his 40-year career at a large Air Force base, his 30 hours of interviews with the Air Force pilot who intercepted this particular UFO, and his study of all of this pilot’s corroborating military records. I hung up feeling intrigued, unthreatened, and grateful that the appearance of my essay in his search results had led to a distinctive encounter I would otherwise never have had.

Pieces I’ve written here in Cognoscenti have led to similarly unanticipated moments of connection with strangers. A tribute I wrote about Joni Mitchell’s song, "A Case of You," led several distressed dulcimer players to send me pained emails correcting my mistaken reference to her playing the hammered dulcimer, and taught me to never treat other people’s passions sloppily. A passing reference in another piece to a subway busker playing a Victor Young tune I especially loved found its way to the composer’s niece, who sent me fond memories of her uncle. A grieving reminiscence that I wrote about my parents and aunt and uncle basking in the sun reflecting off a Laurentian lake generated not just a few rounds of Canadian Jewish Geography with a far-flung collection of strangers, but messages from other Boomers sharing their own musings about the generation that came of age at the start of World War II.

As a reader, I’ve felt those small, thrilling sparks of anger or joy, longing or memory, not just in the great books I’ve read, but in the merely okay ones; in op-eds and movie blurbs; in postcards and letters to the editor. And as a writer — albeit a brandless one, lacking in marketing mojo — I revel in the knowledge that I’ve occasionally ignited them.

So here’s my pitch: Let someone else’s mind into yours. Read a book, any book. You’ll make the most surprising connections.

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Headshot of Julie Wittes Schlack

Julie Wittes Schlack Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” and “Burning and Dodging.”



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