In a world teeming with the rhetoric of consumption, authors have to play a part in getting their work into the world. But in the eagerness to see our books find readers, it’s tempting to overwhelm the writing with promotion. Does every author have to blog, spend hours on Facebook, run a website, tweet, be active on LinkedIn, Instagram and Pinterest, secure literary festival engagements, organise a reading tour and get promotional flyers printed, preferably before breakfast?
Some of those activities might be useful or apposite for an individual writer. Blogging, building an email list of interested readers and the occasional tweet feel like the right fit for me. But the more worrying concept that underpins our anxiety about needing to be everywhere, doing everything, is that each of us ought to be styling ourselves as a ‘personal brand’. This thinking makes not only what we write just another consumer product, but also makes the writer into a ‘product’.
So what’s wrong with that?
Writers want to find readers. Even given that a lot of what we write never makes it into the public domain (journals, notebooks, aborted stories and poems…) somewhere along the line we want people to engage. Writers work with a reader in mind and communicate things that matter to them. If things go well, the end of a particular writing project will be a beautifully-produced book that you want the world to know about.
The book is a product and if you care about it you will promote it. The hope is that you can do so without getting distracted from your main purpose: being a writer. This might mean getting some expert help. Or it might entail finding ways to support your book that don’t overwhelm you. It shouldn’t mean that you, the writer, become a ‘personal brand’ and this is why:
1. We don’t respond well to anything that has designs on us
Writing to John Hamilton Reynolds in 1818, Keats noted:
We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us — and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle or amaze with itself, but with its subject.
The same is true of any writing. When a piece of writing is didactic and beats us over the head with its convictions, we tend to resist. But when an article or story communicates something of significance, it gets under our skin. It convinces without brow-beating.
What is true of our writing is true of writers. We resist writers who do nothing but try to sell to us. That’s not to say we should never try to sell, but no one likes to be sold to constantly. When writers are more ‘brand’ than ‘person’ then they become both unattractive and counterproductive.
2. Authenticity speaks louder than sales pitch
If you don’t love your book and care about it getting into the world, it’s likely no one else will either. That doesn’t mean you have to be in permanent marketing mode. Passion communicates itself. If you love what you are writing, care about what it stands for, write well and communicate well, the authenticity will shine through.
At its simplest, promoting writing demands a transparency to the work that is infectious. You don’t come across as genuine by being a brand. Rather, people soon tire of someone who hustles them, suspecting that a person who packages herself is little more than:
a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
(Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5)
3. You’re a person, not a commodity
Being a personal brand is about creating yourself as a ‘package’ that gives a particular impression. It’s a static image that limits you and needs to be constantly maintained. Of course, we all present ourselves in a myriad of ways; the self is fluid and we have many roles. But the notion of the brand has an ‘acted persona’ at its heart. It creates an image that appears ‘on stage’ but which may not be congruent with our values or our writing. What matters most in establishing a brand identity is self-promotion.
As D. J. Lair has argued in ‘Marketization and the Recasting of the Professional Self: The Rhetoric and Ethics of Personal Branding’:
success is not determined by individuals’ internal sets of skills, motivations, and interests but, rather, by how effectively they are…branded.
The self becomes a commodity and not necessarily and honest one.
4. You’re an individual, not a thing
A brand is an object that is perceived in a certain way; not simply the product in itself, but a whole complex of product, logo, promises, expectations and lifestyle allusions. That’s not my definition of a writer.
A brand can also be a mark left on property — it’s a mark of ownership; a practice associated with cattle or slavery. A branded item is a commodity bought and sold. That’s definitely not my definition of a writer.
Don’t be a brand, be yourself — be honest, be passionate, have values you are zealous about and want to share, tell the world what you do and keep your soul. Don’t become a brand, become a different story.
Want to become a different story?
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