Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Etiquette for Authors
by Sandra Parshall
Ever get the feeling that your self-promotion is annoying people rather than enticing them to read your books? How much is too much?
Do you wonder what – if anything – you should do when you get a conference panel assignment that’s totally wrong for you?
Do you wish you knew the secret to getting book blurbs from writers you admire?
We addressed these questions and more in a program on author etiquette at last Saturday’s meeting of the Sisters in Crime Chesapeake Chapter. Writer Donna Andrews (the Meg Langslow mysteries), bookseller Eileen McGervey of One More Page in Arlington, VA, John Betancourt of Wildside Press, and I made up the informal panel, with Malice Domestic programmer Barb Goffman offering advice about conferences and other chapter members chiming in. I’ll summarize a few of the topics we discussed. Don’t take it as a personal insult when I use the pronoun “you” to refer to all writers. However, if the shoe fits...
Writers marketing mostly to other writers: This bad habit, fostered by the internet, doesn't do much to build your readership.
Most mystery authors participate on multiple listservs for writers. When you post the same news on all of them at the same time, we’re going to get a little tired of seeing it. We probably won’t mind if it’s the happy news of a sale, something your fellow authors can enjoy celebrating with you. But if you’re doing a 30-day blog tour, think twice before you post a notice every single day on every writers’ list you belong to. As chief moderator of the Sisters in Crime national listserv for seven years, I’ve received many private complaints about this sort of thing. Yes, technically it’s allowed under the rules. But when other members are begging the moderator to shut you up, you are not making a good impression.
Writers are readers too. But we shouldn’t be the primary objects of your promotion efforts. Other writers are your professional colleagues. We don’t want to be bombarded with your sales pitches on lists where we go for support and information about professional matters.
So where can you reach readers? Facebook, GoodReads and Twitter are the most popular venues at the moment – but all are rigged with pitfalls for writers. Again, overdoing the hard sell will work against you with your followers. Facebook is a social networking site, and while readers will “like” your author page and “friend” you on your profile page if they’re interested in your writing, they want you to talk about other things too. They want to hear about your pets, about funny experiences you’ve had, about the terrific book (by someone else) you’ve just finished reading and the movie you saw over the weekend. Then when you have a new book coming out, or you’re appearing at an event, you can announce it without fear of a negative reaction. If you use GoodReads, be sure you know the etiquette of this somewhat tricky site, and remember that it’s a place for readers to talk about books with other readers, not a place for writers to hawk their own books.
Social networking is an art, and some writers hate it or can’t get the hang of it, but if you know how to do it right, it will help you sell books in the long run. (I happen to love Facebook, by the way. Please feel free to send me a friend request and to like my Sandra Parshall Books page. But I have made my share of cringe-worthy faux pas there and probably offended any number of people without even realizing I've done it.)
Other obnoxious forms of self-promotion: Be careful about pressing your promotional materials, unsolicited, into the hands of strangers in public places, hospital waiting rooms, doctors’ offices, etc. Some people may be delighted, but others will be offended. You don’t know these people. You don’t know what kind of mood they’re in, what the state of their health is, what’s happening in their lives and what worries are preying on their minds. You might not get the reaction you’re hoping for when you intrude and try to sell them something.
Ask permission before leaving your promotional material in other people’s professional offices. Most libraries also want you to ask permission before leaving anything. Some libraries don’t allow authors to put out bookmarks, cards, etc., and if you do it without so much as asking, you’re making enemies on that library’s staff.
Remember that nobody cares about your new book the way you do. Not even your mother. Not even your spouse. If your book is all you ever talk about, if you’re selling every waking second, wherever you are, people will start avoiding you.
Bookseller contacts: Eileen pointed out the all too common error of e-mailing to request a bookstore event and referring the bookseller to your Amazon page for more information. In case you haven’t heard, booksellers regard Amazon as an arch rival.
Bookstore events are unpredictable – even bestselling authors talk about signings where three people showed up, or none at all. Some major publishers have decided book tours are a waste of time and money. Discuss your ideas for promoting the event with the bookseller and decide whether it’s likely to be successful for both of you.
Book clubs: The book discussion groups Eileen hosts at One More Page welcome author participation in person, by Skype or telephone. If you make yourself personally available to book clubs, those groups will be more likely to choose one of your books for discussion.
Requesting blurbs from other authors: Donna made the point that you should stay within your subgenre. Don’t ask an author of humorous cozies, like Donna, to blurb your gritty thriller. Ask a writer whose own work appeals to the audience you’re trying to reach. Be polite in your approach and remember that you're asking for a big favor; no busy author owes you the chunk of time required to read your book and produce a blurb. If your request is turned down, accept the rejection with good grace and understanding, then move on to someone else. Don’t rant about it on your Facebook page, naming the author and calling him/her an idiot.
The more books you publish and the more conferences you attend, the larger your circle of writer friends and acquaintances will be. It’s easier to ask for a blurb from someone you’ve met personally and whose own books have something in common with theirs.
Submissions to publishers and agents: John Betancourt’s Wildside Press sometimes receives submissions that lack crucial details – such as the author’s contact information. This guarantees that you won’t receive a response, and it marks you as an amateur. Be professional in all your dealings with publishers and agents, submitting clean, properly formatted material, described and categorized in your cover letter, along with your postal, e-mail, and website addresses. If someone asks for an exclusive reading, agree on a time limit that won’t leave you hanging endlessly. Again, don't rant publicly about rejections.
Conferences: Barb Goffman, who has been program chair for Malice Domestic for several years, assured us that programmers for the various mystery conferences do talk to each other and they do discuss the authors who act like prima donnas.
So what should you do if you write dark, gritty mysteries and you’ve been assigned to a panel aimed at fans of lighthearted cozies? Tell the programmer right away that you wouldn’t be comfortable on the panel, Barb advised – but be polite about it. Don’t be angry that the programmer hasn’t had time to read everything you’ve ever written, and don’t fire off an accusatory e-mail. “Tone is everything,” Barb said. A polite and timely request for a change will almost certainly be honored. If you’ve been on one too many panels about a particular topic, point that out in your author questionnaire when you register, and suggest other topics you would prefer.
Don’t make your travel arrangements until you have your program assignment, so you won’t have to turn down a panel because you have a non-refundable plane ticket and must leave before the panel takes place. If you do make your reservations early, or you have discovered that no airline has flights to your hometown on Sunday afternoon, make sure the programmer knows when you have to leave. Conference programmers are not mindreaders.
If you accept a panel, give it your all. Those people in the audience want to be entertained. They want you to be enthusiastic and down to earth. They want to like you, and if they do, they will be curious about your books. Answer every question as if you’ve never heard it before and think it’s absolutely brilliant. Don’t hog the microphone, or cut off other panelists, or act bored or condescending, or turn all your answers into a hard sell for your books. Don’t show up drunk. (It happens, and it’s not cute or funny.) Audience members notice bad behavior, and they’ll dislike you for it.
Guest blogging: Most bloggers will be happy to host you – if you make a request rather than a demand, if you make the request well in advance, if you produce original, entertaining material (not something you posted elsewhere two years ago), if you avoid doing a hard sell, and you turn it in on time and in pristine condition, with no typos and no weird formatting that has to be manually removed. Remember that many blogs, including Poe’s Deadly Daughters, schedule guests months in advance.
Don’t ask for a guest slot, then promptly forget about it. Learn how to use a calendar. The blog owner has reserved space for you, and you have an obligation to fill it. Send in your guest blog a week or more ahead of the date it’s scheduled to run.
Writers with traditional publishers should realize that their publicists often have no clue about the way blogs function. This is equally true of publicists with both small and large presses. Those of us at PDD often receive e-mails from publicists who want to schedule guest blogs on short notice, as little as a week or two. Publicists also have an annoying habit of insisting that everything go through them, with no direct contact between blog host and guest author. And some publicists seem to think they’re doing the blog owners a favor, instead of the other way around. It’s usually best for writers to make their own guest blogging arrangements and do it well in advance.
Our chapter members probably could have talked for another couple of hours about the etiquette of being a professional writer, especially as it relates to online activities. The internet has been both a blessing and a curse, offering us many new ways to promote our books while multiplying our chances of offending both readers and other writers and magnifying our every mistake.
What advice would you add to this list?
If you’re a writer, what mistakes have you made that still embarrass you? (Come on, ’fess up. We all have stories like that.)
If you’re a reader, what writerly behavior has annoyed you? And which writers do you consider gracious and pleasant?