Daily Archives: February 27, 2005

The Why of Writing

Charlie Stross, whose Accelerando you should have already pre-ordered because it’s just that good, goes into some detail as to how it is he’s able to write (short answer: life experience and luck) but is mystified as to the reason why he writes, and says: “If you find it, be sure to tell me?”

Well, Charlie, from my point of view, the answer is obvious: You write to entertain me. Perhaps this is not an existentially compelling reason, and if I am suddenly hit by a train you may be left in the lurch. But I feel confident that there will be numerous other people just as happy to have you write to entertain them as well. So you’re covered. And isn’t that a relief.

I am happy to say I do not have Charlie’s difficulty in answering the question as to why I write. I write for the following reasons, which I present in no particular order:

1. I write because it’s fun.
2. I write because I get paid.
3. I write because I’m pretty good at it.
4. I write because most other jobs I could do constitute actual work.

Chronologically, these reasons appeared in the following order: 3,1,4,2 — Early on I realized I had the facility for writing, then I realized it was fun, then I realized I should probably get as good as I could at it because I didn’t much like the idea of having to do anything else for a living, and then I managed to convince someone to pay me for it. These days all of these reasons are in play, in varying percentages at any one time.

These reasons don’t answer the question of why I, of all people, should be able to write both professionally and with relative ease, which may be what Charlie was aiming at. As to that, well, who can say? Some people are naturally athletic, and a subset throw fastballs. Some people are naturally musically apt, and a subset play a mean guitar. Some people naturally have a facility for self-expression, and a subset exhibit that through writing.

I suspect I was born with a gift for writing; I don’t spend much time worrying about the provenance of the gift, since that seems a little like tempting fate. I’m just glad I have it and I work to develop a measure of craft to go along with that gift. That way if the gift ever gives out (and who knows? It might), I’ll have craft to fall back on.

But again, I don’t spend all that much time dwelling on the philosophical aspects of why I write. Mostly I just write to have fun. And to make mortgage payments. But mostly, for fun.

Virtual Book Tours

Via S.L. Viehl, I note the existence of Virtual Book Tour, a public relations group which specializes in connecting authors with blogs to complement (or in the stead of) an actual book tour, for a fee ranging anywhere from $225 for a minimal “blogmatching” with three blogs to a three-day “tour” for $3000. Ms. Viehl seems skeptical that this service is worth the money, and I have to say I agree with her. Note that I am not skeptical that blog publicity is good publicity; I’d be a stinkin’ hypocrite if I said that. But I wonder whether doing something like this is a good use of money, and a good use of the nature of blogs.

To address the former: I doubt rather seriously whether one should spend anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars to promote one’s self to bloggers, particularly if one is at all familiar with the blogosphere. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that if you’re reading this entry right now, and you’re a writer with a book from a genuine publisher (i.e., one that doesn’t make you pay to send out review copies of your own book), you’re probably competent enough to mount a “virtual book tour” at no cost to you whatsoever.

But how? Well, simple:

1. Identify 5 – 10 blogs you like, which are also reasonably well-trafficked and/or well-known to the kind of folks you guess would be interested in your book.

2. Call up the in-house publicist at your publisher and say “I’d like it very much if you’d send an advance copy to the following people,” and then give them the e-mail addresses of the blogger in question or, if you really want to impress your publicist and make her/his life easier, the physical address of the blogger in question. Let your publicist know that you’d also be willing to sit for an interview with the blogger if they’d like, and also tell them to let the blogger know you specified that they should receive an advance copy of the book (it’s flattering).

3. Let your in-house publicist do her/his job and then as you get closer to the release date of the book, follow up with her/him as to who among the bloggers has evidenced any interest.

There you go.

Your cost: $0, less the cost of your time to advise the in-house publicist as to which bloggers you’d like to have your work sent to. But even if you were self-publishing and had to bear all the cost and effort of doing the above yourself, your total cost would still be less than what this outfit is charging; the premium here presumably comes from their knowledge of the blogging field (i.e. what to send to whom). Possibly that’s worth that much money, but I’m doubtful. It’s not that hard to navigate the blogging world and see which bloggers might be useful to you, even if you’re a complete newbie. And the barrier for entry into the blogging world, promotionwise, is almost laughably low at this point. Mining blogs for their promotional value is so new that most bloggers are still excited at the idea of getting free books and stuff.

So: Is this “Virtual Book Tour” business a scam? I wouldn’t think so — from what I can see, the folks running it do what they say they’re going to do, and hook up authors with bloggers. If you want to spend your money with them, I’m sure they’ll do a fine job for you. But again, why would you want to spend that much money, for something you could get (or do) for free? $3K is a pretty big chunk of any first-time writers’ advance, and not an insignificant amount of most book advances on average.

Before you do anything like this, do check with your publisher’s in-house publicist; you may be surprised at how open they are to trying to address the blog/online angle. For example, I had no problem convincing Portable Press, which publishes my Book of the Dumb books, to hook up with Fark.com for advertising purposes, or to send the Book of the Dumb to bloggers I selected. Neither did I have any problems at all when I offered up a small list of bloggers I wanted Old Man’s War sent to. Subterranean Press, who will be publishing the hardcover of Agent to the Stars, plans to make the blog/online world a substantial part of its publicity push and indeed has already started to work that angle (see this piece at the Agony Column, from Thursday, as an example). In other words, it’s not that hard to make your in-house publicist see the light, if in fact she or he still needs to be convinced. And once you point out the fact that doing this sort of thing costs nearly nothing (especially relative to mounting a real world tour), they may become even more enthused.

Now to the second point, which relates to the nature of the blog world itself, in terms of publicity. However you decide to address online publicity, remember to keep a realistic expectation of how successful it’s going to be in terms of your book sales (or whatever else you’re promoting). For example, with Old Man’s War, I asked Tor to send advance copies to five different bloggers/online sites, all of whom I have had some personal familiarity with in the past, and could therefore not unreasonably expect might make a mention of the book. Two did and the others didn’t. Any publicist will tell you two hits out of five is pretty good; I would have been happy with just one.

Also remember that blogs have their good points and bad points as publicity machines. The good news is that blog readers tend to have a more “intimate” relationship with the blogs they read than they do with, say, magazines and newspapers; I suspect the individual reader of a blog is rather more likely to pick up a book on the recommendation of the blogger than they would on the recommendation of a newspaper review. On the other hand, blog readership is generally tiny, relative to conventional media. The Virtual Book Tour folks, as an example, promise to connect authors with blogs that have readership of 500 and 1,000 daily readers — an almost unfathomably small number of readers compared to even a modest-sized daily newspaper. The non-online publicist that promised to position a book to media outlets with 500 to 1,000 readers had better have a second job lined up to pay the rent.

On yet the other hand, there’s a difference in that the 500 visitors to a blog are reading only that blog during their visit, while the many thousands of readers of a newspaper have a substantial number of articles vying for their attention. But on still another hand, a review of your book from a newspaper or magazine will get slapped on the paperback (or future printings) and helps to position your book and future work to booksellers and the public, while a review from Joe Blogger will not. We can do the pros and cons until you run out of hands.

The other issue to address is how professionalization of blog publicity will change the dynamic between the reader and the blogger. Right now we take it for granted that when a blogger says “I really liked this book/CD/movie/whatever,” they’re being honest about their enthusiasm. But when the “top” bloggers are regularly serviced by publicists, will this remain true? Many people feel professional critics are already compromised by their interaction with the publicity machine, regardless of whether that’s true or not; why would bloggers be any different?

And once a blogger loses personal credibility, what does he or she have left to offer? If you’re reading an entry by a blogger about a movie or book (or whatever) and part of you is wondering if the blogger is writing about it because they are genuinely interested in the work or just because they promised a publicist they would, then the reader-blogger dynamic is already broken, and the blogger is just another shill. That does you no good — and as importantly, it spells trouble for the blogger as well.

These are the things to consider when you think about using bloggers for publicity — and why the best way to do blogging publicity may be to offer your work to bloggers in a realistic, low-key way that respects the independent and curious nature of blogging, rather than mounting a highly-polished, highly aggressive drive for product placement. In other words, virtual book tours that respect the real dynamics of the blog world.