Wednesday, September 19, 2007

That Thing Called BSP

Sandra Parshall

If you spend any time at all on mystery listservs (or any listserv where writers hang out), you're well-acquainted with the concept of BSP -- blatant self-promotion. If you're a writer, you've probably done your share of it. I know I have. Like the weather, it draws plenty of complaints but no suggestions for practical remedies.

We're supposed to promote ourselves, right? We're supposed to talk about our books, make people want to buy them and read them. Get online and promote, promote, promote! Trouble is, the more we talk, the less people want to listen. It's entirely possible for writers on the internet to talk readers out of buying their books.

I've seen it happen again and again. I've felt this reaction to some writers myself. They're the people who show up on the listservs only when they have something to sell -- or, even worse, when they want conference registrants to give them an award. They don't contribute to discussions, they don't offer helpful advice on any subject, they don't talk about anything except themselves and their products. "I want you to buy my books and give me awards, and that's the only reason I'm here" -- this is their underlying message. It's not surprising when such an approach produces exactly the opposite of the desired result. The offending authors would probably be amazed if they knew what people were saying about them privately.

So what's a writer to do? How do we promote our work online without making enemies or boring people to tears?

I can't tell adult professionals how to behave, but I can tell you what I, as a reader and book-buyer, respond to favorably and unfavorably. If a writer contributes to a discussion with intelligent comments and shows that she's interested in something other than herself and her own career, my heart will warm toward her. If an author has complimentary things to say about someone else's writing, I'm going to like him. Through discussions and recommendations, I'll form an idea of what a writer's work will be like, and if it seems appealing, I'll go looking for it. If I get hit over the head every few days with BSP ("Guess what wonderful thing has happened to me NOW!"), I'm going to develop resistance to both the writer and the work.

Sure, I like hearing that a new book has been released. But I don't want to hear about every single review and every single interview and every new print run. I think all writers should stop before we post such information on a listserv and ask ourselves, "Who besides me really gives a darn about this? How many people will I be annoying if I post this?" Some information belongs on a writer's personal web site or blog and nowhere else.

I am on one list, the e-mail discussion list of the Sisters in Crime Guppies Chapter, where BSP is freely allowed because the entire purpose of the group is to help people get published. Each achievement is a validation of the group's worth. Even there, though, some members complain about being inundated with BSP. It's not surprising that they would hate it even more on a list with a broader purpose.

I know that many people share my distaste for excessive BSP online. I know because I've discussed it with them. Yet it continues unabated, like junk mail, everywhere we look. That makes me think that either (1) a majority of people just love reading BSP, or (2) a lot of people would rather quietly unsubscribe from a list than complain loudly enough about its content to provoke a change.

Which category are you in? How do you really feel about BSP from writers? Have you ever sworn off a writer because he or she did too much blatant self-promotion? Do you ever wish listservs would ban BSP? Or do you enjoy it -- or simply not care? You can post a comment anonymously if you're afraid of offending anyone. Or write to me privately at I want to know what all of you have to say about this ever-present feature of our online lives.


Anonymous said...

I recently attended a workshop on pop culture involving thirtysomething bloggers, taste makers, etc. Authenticity and passion (sometimes idiocyncratic) seem to be driving what was successful over the Internet. I think those principles transfer over to older generations as well.

Nobody wants a company in our face, selling us a product. Nobody wants to pressured or manipulated. BSP, for the most part, doesn't work and shouldn't be part of listserv discussions unless it's a smaller, more intimate group like the Guppies group you mentioned. If a person has a passion for mysteries and the listserv is about mysteries, then that topic should be addressed--not how an author can sneak in the name of his/her book.

I know as authors we feel so much pressure to sell, sell, sell, but a website and developing a mailing list seem to me better options for BSP.

This pop culture workshop caused me to think a little more out of the box, so I'm really opinionated right now! I'm even starting to reassess the role of blogging in our community, but that's a whole other topic.

Sofie Kelly said...

I don't mind a little self-promotion (even though I'm awful at it myself) but when it crosses over into pressure that's when an author loses me.
The author who emailed me SIX times pressuring me to join her street team went too far. I didn't join the team or buy her book. (I only knew her name because we were in the same writers group.)
But I bought two copies of the book by an author that emailed to tell me her book had been published and to say thanks because she felt an article I'd written had helped her.

Sandra Parshall said...

Darlene, the note from an author who felt you had helped her seems like the kind of message any writer would like to receive.

I'm on the mailing lists of several of my favorite writers -- Tess Gerritsen, Stephen Booth, Karin Slaughter, for example -- so I obviously want to hear their news. And as I said above, I don't mind announcements of new books. Now and then, though, I receive mass-mail messages that I did NOT ask for, and that annoys me. Nobody should troll the internet looking for e-mail addresses to send advertising to. That kind of e-mail is spam, pure and simple.

Barbara said...

I am on three of the busiest mystery discussion groups (and - dull disclosure - am a moderator on one, 4MA). Each has a different philosophy and feel. DorothlyL allows BSP but has a variety of other "forbidden topics." RAM, one of the original usenet groups, is amazingly open, but there's very little BSP; you do, however, run into some odd ducks and plenty of political discussion. Somehow, humor and a genuine bond among long-term members keeps it a welcoming place without apparent governance or rules and with some very strange visitors - sort of like a party where a flasher shows up, drops his drawers, and everyone laughs. 4MA does not allow BSP and is gently but firmly focused on books and reading; there's an affiliated "pub" for members to hoist a jar and have off topic discussions. I don't think they've had any flashers, though. Three very different ways for communities to build their own cultures and agreements about their purpose and nature. But they are communities that have developed their own, perhaps unspoken, social contracts.

As for me, I think the "promotion is half the job" is a huge mistake for writers and for the whole mystery community. Being a personable, interesting human being who talks to others about a shared passion - that's not a job, that's being a member of society. Some writers have confused "social capital" with "capitalism" and don't think about how obnoxious it is to be bombarded by barely-disguised advertising all the time.

I'm a librarian and feel quite strongly about the difference between honest engagement with ideas and stealth marketing. Journalists, for all their faults, make an ethical distinction between news and what their advertising department does. They see a real danger in mixing the two. (That's not to the distinction always works, but at least it's acknowledged in the journalist's code of ethics.

I wish writers - even of "commercial" fiction - cared enough about the value of their words and ideas to develop some sort of ethical line between writing and selling. It's often not clear on some lists and other Internet venues whether someone is honestly responding to a book or if they're part of a promotional effort. I just saw a book trailer (for a non-fiction book) that pretended to be a documentary when it was really nothing but a polished ad. That's dishonest. Our social gatherings for the mystery community are so often like bad flashbacks to high school for me. Who'll get on the team? Who's going to get to stand next to the hunk or the gorgeous blonde? Obviously, it's not all like that that, but when it is, it's an insult to the genre.

I'd like to see the lines drawn more clearly as a matter of ethics. If we think books matter, that they're not just boxes of crackerjack to be consumed mindlessly, we should treat them better.

Wow, did that ever set me off! High school flashbacks... deep breaths, deep breaths....

Barbara said...

Er... of course I meant to type "full disclosure" though perhaps "dull" was truth in advertising... :o)

Sandra Parshall said...

I've had some private responses on this subject, and I think a couple have been posted on DorothyL too. So far everyone, including those who don't mind a reasonable amount of BSP, has said that the most irritating people are the ones who turn every discussion back to their books. Whatever the topic might be, they'll pop up to say that on page 243 of MY NEW BOOK, the charismatic main character pauses to think about that very subject. This kind of thing can be very funny, but yes, it is annoying.

Theresa de Valence said...

Sorry to be a dissenter, but I think marketing is terribly important. That the whole writing community thinks we ought to be somehow morally superior to the rest of the commercial activity in the world is ... well, silly.

But, I freely admit that some of the TV ads on Superbowl Sunday (back in those long ago years when I watched a TV) were terribly witty. I freely admit that some commercials are much, much, much better than others.

Come to think of it, there's my rebuttal question: how many Pro-No-BSP people don't watch TV because it has commercials on it?

Theresa de Valence

Sandra Parshall said...

Theresa, in our house we almost always record TV programs on our DVR so we can skip the commercials entirely. I don't feel any obligation to sit through anyone's advertisement.

Sofie Kelly said...

Hi Theresa, can you see me waving my hand? I don't watch a lot of TV but I record almost everything I watch on my DVR and I skip through the commercials. When I watch a commercial I do it with a critical eye because I used to write them for a living. Part of the reason I left that job was because I started to have qualms about what I was doing. I discovered I had problems writing "upbeat" ads for a funeral home. (If you've seen the episode of WKRP about Ferryman's Funeral Home you'll pretty much get the picture.)

I don't object to commercials,some of them are funnier than the TV show, but I don't see a commercial as being the same as pressuring everyone I even vaguely know to handsell my books to everyone they even vaguely know.

I'm curious: for you what crosses the line into annoying promotion?

Sandra Parshall said...

And btw, Theresa, I agree that writers *do* have to promote their books. A web site, maybe a blog if you're inclined, signings, conferences, bookmarks and other stuff to give away -- we can do all of that. But I think that simply participating on a listserv in a non-commercial way is the best kind of internet promotion. I really like the idea of listservs where BSP is not allowed, like the one Barbara mentioned.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Love this discussion. I agree, Sandy, someone who turns every discussion to "This is how I did it" drives me nuts, and more important drives me away from reading their books. And you can't help but notice that best selling authors don't do that.

Sandra Parshall said...

Jann Briesacher sent me these examples of the categories of BSP and gave me permission to post them here.

My first book is coming out! My first book is coming out! November 14, I'm so excited. It's called "Birds of a Feather" and it's about ....

You were asking about books that feature birds as protagonists. My new book coming out Nov. 14, "Birds of a Feather," features a Myna bird and a parakeet who are half-brothers and help a witless plumber solve mysteries.

Someone mentioned crackers in their post last week. In my book, "Birds of a Feather," the Myna bird protagonist eats crackers on page 87! Isn't that a coincidence?

Anonymous said...

Great Blog.
I'm somewhere in the middle. Sort of. If I start feeling inundated, I find I just skim over the BSP and ultimately any comments from that poster. Or hit the delete button. I love to hear there's a new book out. Especially if it's a first book by someone I've "met" online, but there's a limit. I agree, a blog or personal website is the best place for every little detail of the trip through publishing.

Barbara said...

For what it's worth, I did a poll using surveymonkey last spring for a piece in Mystery Scene on Crimespace and other online mystery communities. Respondents (not just from Crimespace, but also other online groups) had a lot of positive things to say about these communities. But when asked what aggravated them the most, BSP was cited three times more often than anything else, including flaming.

I think Sandra has it right - it can really backfire if its blatant. And I am not against authors promoting their books with websites and whatnot - I'm just tired of commercialism invading every part of my life, particularly when it's pretending to be something else.

Tech folks talk about push and pull technology. If I'm pulled by curiosity and by having a good interaction with someone who loves mysteries and happens to write them, great. I'll look for his or her books. But when it becomes push technology - when I'm unable to avoid the hard sell - then it's just pushy.

Name recognition is only a good thing if good things are associated with it.

Whitewing said...

I like a bit of quality BSP. I like to meet new authors, I want to read interesting books. I am a member of dorothy-l and have bought many books because I read about them online.

Gentle BSP, though, not in-yer-face.

I have reviewed many books online, and done some blatant author promotion because I enjoyed the books so much.

I live in Canada, so see different advertising, and appreciate being reminded when there is a new book out.

Unknown said...

A little BSP is fine, especially when it comes from a writer whose prior work impressed me so much that I'm salivating for her/his next book. (Yes, Cornelia Read, skywrite over my townhouse roof; Morris Sakey, too.) That said, I'm much more likely to check out new releases based on the quality of non-BSP posts. I bought one of Jeff Cohen's books (still, I'm afraid, on my tottering TBR pile) because I love the humor and humanity of his DL posts.

What really turns me off are the hard sells. It's like walking into your living room and finding an insurance salesman on your couch.

Sandra Parshall said...

As Kadi said, the writers who think the entire world needs to hear about "every little detail" of their publishing voyage are the ones who really turn people off. I think we should stop and ask ourselves *why* we think everybody will want to read about everything that happens to us. Is it really that interesting?

Many of these lists have well-known writers on them. Will they really care that we got a nice review in some publication or another, or will they read what we've posted and brand us as beginners who haven't yet gained enough perspective to behave like professionals? When we post BSP on a listserv, we're taking time and space from everyone who subscribes to that list. IMO, we should only post what will be of general interest and save the crowing over small triumphs for our family and friends.

New publications -- yes, I think most people are happy to hear about them. Beyond that, we should think carefully before we start broadcasting every tiny bit of our good news.

Anonymous said...

To answer the last inquiries first. Yes, I truly dislike it and YES I have gone out of my way not to read someone who is excessive about it. Usually it's not someone I swore off, but someone I never started and now I won't.
I never joined a listserv or ANY form of discussion so that I could be hit with BSP. I joined listservs for the true purpose for which most exist - to talk within a community about what matters to that community. I don't WANT ads, whatever form they take.
There are a few authors out there who truly do seem to believe that old b.s. that "any publicity is good" and they are so HORRIBLY wrong. They aren't doing BSP to get readers like me. I really believe they are doing it because they think they are fascinating and everyone wants to hear their every thought because they are so fascinating.

I'm fed up with 13 line sigs that list titles, ISBNS and links to Amazon. I believe there are very good resources for me to use to find out about new authors. Yeah, I am a reviewer, so I get a lot of books but you would not believe how many books I read outside of reviewing. I find them on "Deadly Directory". I find them on websites and magazines and in conversations with people. On occasion, i email an author if I haven't seen a release date on her website to ask about it.
I am wholly tired of people on listservs who join solely to tell you about their books. It is a major reason I've withdrawn almost completely from one listserv and remain only because I want to be sure to catch news like award nomninations and someone changing their website.

I don't know who's telling you "Get online and promote, promote, promote!" but it's so misleading. Are these the same publicity experts who say "no one wants books set in Canada" and "male private eyes aren't interesting" and "no one wants to read about foreign countries" (all of which I've heard from authors being told this by publicists and editors. Are they the same as the one who sent me a horror novel today with a bag full of what appears to be "gummy brains"? And I'm supposed to find this amusing and make me want to read the book? HUH?

"Trouble is, the more we talk, the less people want to listen."
Too true. Because it's pretty much all the same. i've encountered authors with THREE blogs, and many with two. Most exist to to BSP and talk about "the writing process" and all that jazz and yes, "how I did it" which um, well, I'm not very interested in. It seems to be a major focus for lots of author websites and it sends me away fast. I maintain a database for mystery authors and there are hundreds and HUNDREDS of author webpages. How much can you read? Before blogging there were list servs. They all started out great but they are just NOT that interesting any more.

"How do we promote our work online without making enemies or boring people to tears?"

By NOT joining a listserv or discussion SOLELY to push your book. Join, lurk, and find something INTERESTING TO SAY. An original opinion would be nice, NOT asking "what order these books are in" or the usual tired questions. By NOT saying you only go to conventions to be on program and won't go because you're not a fan, you're an AUTHOR and you require a panel or it's a waste of your time. By making us interested in you. IN YOU. NOT YOUR BOOK, but by being an interesting conversationalist, talking about what others are talking about. That will make us interested in what you write and maybe in you. And that will last a lot longer.

TdV - no one denies that marketing is important. but HOW it is done makes a difference. I know there are lots of authors out there terrified of being invisible. BSP is NOT the way to appear on our radar, as for the most part, it will make someone visible and we will go out of our way to avoid that person.

And in fact, i mute ALL tv ads (and watch less and less of it every season) and feel NO obligation whatsoever to watch ads. The listservs I am on DO NOT exist for the purpose of providing "ad space" to authors and would survive - have survived -without it.

Anonymous said...

I'm a member of DorothyL and I don't mind a reasonable amount of BSP at all. I wouldn't want BSP to be forbidden. I agree it is annoying though when an author uses any and every excuse to mention their book like the "cracker" example in a previous post. I chuckled over that one because I've seen that happen.

The authors who completely turn me off from trying their books are those who only show up to mention their book and other than that they never participate in the group.

I also don't mind if authors list their books in their signature line as long as they keep that reasonable also. I don't think they need to make it a mile long listing every book they have ever written. If a series the name of the series and the latest title is fine along with their web site addy.

Anonymous said...

I'm a member of DorothyL and I have to say that I have quite of list of authors that I will never buy, probably not read their books and have started skipping all of their posts because of their BSP.

It's not that I mind hearing about authors new books, in fact that is the reason I'm on the list, but some of the people are so totally obnoxious about it. There are 3 or 4 authors that turn EVERY discussion into a promotion for their work. Interestingly enough, these tend to be the same authors that feel the need to "take up arm" with every discussion also, so not only are they way over stepping the polite line of BSP, they are just rude in general.
I mean, is it possible for one protagonist to be a civil war buff, kleptomaniac, bipolar suffering from cancer who uses ESP, police procedures standards in turn of the century Chicago, modern day Scotland and oh yes, he's Italian, lives in Florida but tarvels extensively in South America and Asia? Okay and exaggeration, but there are a few who have tried to make us believe their books fit almost that many catagories.

I love it when a new author get his or her first book published, and announces it-especially of it is a person who has been contributiong to various discussions for a while. I love to see when a new book or series is coming from a regular poster. (ie Rhys Bowen's new series or your second book Sandra.) I appreciate having people chime in on a discussion of say opera Venice with comments like, "while researching my by series featuring...." as Beverle Myers has done. That's relevent to the discussion. Someone who is interested in Venice, historicals or operas will be happy for the info. She DOES NOT pipe in on discussions of Southwestern Indians with "my series, though set in Venice might be of interest..."

I guess after all of this rambling, my point is, how I feel about the BSP has alot to do with how I feel about the person in general. If I'm interested in what the person posts on a variety of subjects, then I'm likely to be interested in their BSP. If their posts are generally all about themselves anyway, then I've stopped reading them long ago anyway so it doesn't really matter what they say.

Sandra Parshall said...

I think I touched a nerve with this topic. As both a writer and a listserv moderator, I'm grateful to everyone who has taken the time to respond, either here or through private e-mail. I'm still open to comments, so if you have something to say on the subject, don't hold back.

Clea Simon said...

Great topic!
I'm an author, so I'm biased, but basically I like to hear announcements of new books and that's pretty much it for the big lists (like the Dorothy L, CozyMysteries, etc.). If an author is doing an event in my area, I appreciate an email, or even two (one announcing a string of readings - one saying "I'll be at Brookline Booksmith tonight!"). Otherwise, no, I don't want to hear about it. If you (or I) get written up somehwere, that's great. That write-up is your BSP, so leave it at that.

The only exception I'd make are the chat groups that are specifically for authors to talk about their projects and the like - such as our own Poisoned Pen authors group or groups like "Mystery Must Advertise." But these aren't really for the general public.

Just my two cents!

Anonymous said...

I like it when writers describe what their book is about and what kind of people would want to read it. If there's a theme or a central topic, I like them to show why that matters to them. If there's a reason they chose a particular style, like noir, or sassy, or humorous, or over-the-top, or commonsense realism, I like them to say. I don't care about awards or other self-congratulations. But, if they can chat about their writing the way they would to a friend over coffee, I really appreciate that.

Anonymous said...

I loathe BSP. I understand wanting to let people know about your work. I understand the need to show your publisher that you're participating in the marketing of your book. But I absolutely cannot stand BSP on listservs and forums. Yuck. Gross. Stop it.

Wanna gain a new reader? Be interesting and participate in the community w/o turning every conversation into a "ME" fest. Believe me, I will check out your website, blog, whatever, if you're articulate and engaging. I definitely have names that pop up on the never read radar as a result of ridiculous BSP and generally rude behavior. I subscribe to DL, but don't read large chunks of it because of the crazy BSP stuff, or because I know an author does a lot of BSP and is also a jerk. I read the name and keep on scrolling.

Wendy said...

You know, I know BSP bothers a lot of people, but I wonder if it bothers writers more than non-writers. I'm a DL person, and I love to read. I've been sick this past few days and have just caught up with like 10 digests. I have scribbled down eight to be read titles, written two on my Go to the Bookstore list and ordered two from the library! Sometimes, I see an author over and over again posting on DL, not necessarily BSPing, and think, "ya, ya, I gotta get to that guy" but there are so many to choose from!! I've been on DL with Jeff Cohen forever now, laughing at his great wit, and thinking, "I gotta read that guy" and finally today his new book is on my Go to the Bookstore list along with Elaine Flinn's new one.

I love to read mysteries and no, I don't care if people BSP. The ones that are obnoxious about it, and I really think they are in the minority, just make me mentally cross them off my list. There are three or four DL'ers who BSP so much I wouldn't read 'em if they were the last mystery writers on the planet.

The ones who REALLY bother me are the ones that someone on DL once cleverly tagged as "Drive By posters" who literally post once or twice a year to let us know that their royal personages have given birth to another book. Gee, thanks. Love you too.

But on the whole, as Just A Reader, I like it, and wouldn't want to see it banned, because it does help me read more great writers, and blogs, by the way!! and that's why I like DL in the first place.

So that's my two cents :)
Wendy Bartlett

Lesa said...

I'm a librarian and a reader. I was totally in agreement with Caryn's post about those authors who link every topic with their own books. I have reached the point that when I see their name on an email, I delete it unread. I'm afraid those authors have not only lost a reader, they have probably lost sales to libraries as well. So, they're no longer reaching my library patrons, because I'm considered one of the two mystery experts in my building, and one of them in my system.

I've just skimmed most of the comments. I also agreed with Wendy. Tell me about your new books. I've discovered authors, who I've supported with my money, the library's money, my time at author appearances, and book reviews. If you slam it in my face every time you post, you'll lose all of my goodwill.

Sandra Parshall said...

Everyone I've heard from (and I've had a lot of private e-mail responses) has said more or less the same thing: Love to hear about new books, hate being hit over the head with incessant sales pitches.

I've found many new-to-me writers on DL, but the ones whose work I try are always those who post intelligent comments on various subjects and don't make every discussion about them and their books. It's like TV advertising. If I see the same hard-sell ad every time I turn on the set, I wouldn't buy that product if my life depended on it.