Conducting a peer analysis

When a startup is figuring out their go-to-market strategy, one of the first things they look at is who’s in their space. Who are the competitors? What are their products? How do they market themselves and to whom? What do their websites look like? How do they speak about their value proposition?

Thinking of other writers as competitors is counterproductive—there’s plenty of reading time to go around—but looking around and paying attention to how your peers market themselves and their work can be very helpful. In grad school, our professors instructed us to read literary journals to see what was getting published and where. Doing this creates a kind of situational awareness for writers—it helps you understand the prevailing aesthetics, the ecosystem, the writers and editors who might share your tastes. Looking at how your peers present themselves is no different, it’s just for marketing instead of for the work itself.

You’ll see some things you like and want to emulate and some things that seem half-assed. Make note of what you see as mistakes or bad decisions. What would you do differently?

 

So who are my peers?

Look at the writers who have something in common with you and who are a few steps ahead of you career-wise.

  • Writers in your city or area whom you admire

  • Workshop colleagues who are actively marketing themselves

  • Writers you met at readings, events, lectures, open mics who you thought were interesting

  • Writers who write in a style similar to yours, or about similar subjects

Make a list of at least ten. Write it down. It might be helpful to note why you put them on the list.

 

And who are not my peers?

Don’t waste time analyzing the marketing efforts of:

  • Famous people. Don’t compare your marketing efforts (or, good lord, your writing) with famous people, Pulitzer-prize winners, George Saunders, whoever. What works for them won’t work for you.

  • Internet-famous writers. If you want to publish books, feel free to ignore the person with the witty tweets and the tens of thousands of followers. Do you want to write literature or do you want to write 140-character punchlines? If you want to write comedy or be the next Melissa Broder, by all means, look at what these people are doing and learn from it.

  • Freelance writers. If you’re like me, you probably know some literary writers who also freelance or do some professional writing on the side. Take care to separate out the freelance writing marketing. Freelancers have a whole different way of marketing their stuff—different product, different audience.

  • Dabblers. Your friend who published in a journal that’s just a Blogspot site. Your MFA colleague who posts every four months and only to ask you to read her essay on some site you’ve never heard of. It’s not that they’re bad writers; it’s that they’re bad marketers. You don’t want to bother factoring these people into your analysis.

 

What should I be paying attention to?

Twitter

Because so much writerly conversation happens on Twitter, start there. The goal is to identify what you like about these writers’ accounts.

  • How do they tweet?

  • How often?

  • Who do they retweet and what kind of material do they share?

  • Do they engage in conversation with people on Twitter?

  • If so, what does that look like?

  • Is this person an asshole? How are they an asshole?

 

Their websites

We’ll cover websites in a later post. Writers seem to have a tortured relationship with them—most writers’ websites aren’t great. Look at your peers’ sites and see if they do anything you like. Make particular note of:

  • What the first screen you see looks like. Is there an image? A bio? Something else?

  • Whether or not they include blog posts.

  • How they list their publications.

Me looking at most writers' websites.

Me looking at most writers' websites.

 

Where they read

One of the most visible ways emerging writers get in front of audiences is by literally getting in front of audiences. Where have these writers read publically? Have they done any lectures, appeared on any panels, conducted any interviews?

 

Where they publish

Look at where their work has appeared and scope out those journals. Do they publish work you enjoy? Would you fit there?

 

What they blog about

It may or may not be necessary for you to have a blog (there will probably be a post about this later), but if one of your peers blogs, read it.

  • What do they blog about?

  • How prominently is this featured on their website or social profiles?

  • Do they share their blog posts on social media?

 

Other media

Do these writers have side projects? Do they have videos of them reading at an event? Do they host a podcast or appear on one?

 

What do I do with this information?

Write it down. Seriously. Make a detailed document that you can refer to—think of it as a marketing toolbox. This will probably feel really weird, but it helps you understand and you can consult it later.

Yes, measurement, metrics, and analysis are hard.

Yes, measurement, metrics, and analysis are hard.

You’ll see some things you like and want to emulate and some things that seem half-assed. Make note of what you see as mistakes or bad decisions. What would you do differently? When you start fine-tuning your marketing efforts, refer to this toolbox, and keep tabs on what your peers are up to.

Just know that measuring yourself against them is only useful to a degree. Yes, you can judge what kind of traction your personal brand is getting by looking at how many Twitter followers you have, but that doesn’t make your writing any better.

More on common marketing channels in the weeks to come.

The state of adjuncting: 2017

Salon editor Erin Keane on Twitter this morning, talking adjunct salaries. Adjuncts, it turns out, continue to be broke as fuck.

Personal branding part two: what a personal brand is, and how to do it right

In part one, we talked about the misunderstandings around personal branding, and how the marketing rhetoric used to describe it doesn’t match the way writers think about themselves. In this post, we’ll try to get to a definition of personal branding that we can use and talk about how some writers are doing it well.

Because personal branding is based on the way products and companies brand themselves, let’s ditch the “personal” for now and just talk about “branding.” We’re going to get deep into businessy marketing talk for a second—just bear with me. Writing for Forbes, Jerry McLaughlin gives a good rundown of how the term “brand” is used in marketing today:

Beginning in the later part of the 20th century, marketers began to grasp there was more to the perception of distinctive products and services than their names—something David Ogilvy described as “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.” Marketers realized that they could create a specific perception in customers’ minds concerning the qualities and attributes of each non-generic product or service. They took to calling this perception “the brand.”

Put simply, your “brand” is what your prospect thinks of when he or she hears your brand name. It’s everything the public thinks it knows about your name brand offering—both factual (e.g. It comes in a robin’s-egg-blue box), and emotional (e.g. It’s romantic). Your brand name exists objectively; people can see it. It’s fixed. But your brand exists only in someone’s mind.

Extending this to personal branding makes you the product and people’s perception of you the brand, but that feels a little gross, doesn’t it? Who wants to be a product? Enter Thomas Smale, writing for Entrepreneur, who gives the best and simplest definition of a personal brand that I’ve seen: “Your personal brand is how you appear to the world.”

 

The more you get your marketing fundamentals in order early on, the more control you’ll have over that brand.
— Arielle Jackson

 

Your personal brand is how the world sees you

What I like about Smale’s definition is that acknowledges that you have a personal brand whether you like it or not. Everything you do contributes to the way the world sees you. Your publications, your tweets, the way you present yourself at readings or events, the classes you teach—it’s all creating an impression.

This is great for writers, for two reasons:

  1. You don’t have to be fake. Smale’s first piece of advice in Entrepreneur is “Understand and be your authentic self.” He may be understating the difficulty involved in that, but his point is a good one. Take stock of your strengths and weaknesses, talk about what you want to talk about, and do it in your own voice.

  2. You don’t have to limit yourself. Personal branding shouldn’t be an exercise in whittling everything about you down into a single marketing message. Roxane Gay has an incredible personal brand, much of which is expressed through Twitter. I’m scrolling through her last 100 tweets, where she’s written funny and thoughtful stuff about race, James Patterson, International Trans Visibility Day, and Channing Tatum. (Between all that there’s a few tweets about her upcoming tour, most of them responding to people asking if she’s coming to their city—Roxane nailing her jabs and right hooks)

Brad Listi, who I talked about in part one of this post, is another great example of personal branding, despite his distrust of the concept. If you listen to his interviews or follow his Twitter (or Otherppl’s Twitter, which he uses as a personal account), you’ll see his personal obsessions surface again and again—politics, psychedelic drugs and their link to spirituality, technology, a curiosity of how writers are formed, etc.

Brad Listi and Roxane Gay are both doing the three things required to build a personal brand:

  • Be active

  • Be yourself

  • Be aware of who’s seeing you

Your online presence is the #1 way people are likely to find you, especially if you don’t have a book out.

 

It’s important to do this early on. Arielle Jackson, formerly a marketer at Google, is famously obsessive about the details and practices. “There’s a healthy contingent of entrepreneurs out there who think anything involving brand or marketing is complete fluff and a waste of time,” she told First Round Review. “I’ve found that this belief often springs from a misconception: that a brand is equivalent to a logo. It’s not true. A brand is who people think you are. The more you get your marketing fundamentals in order early on, the more control you’ll have over that brand.

But how do literary writers do that? How do we exert control over how readers see us?

 

Nailing the fundamentals

It might be helpful to think in terms of “marketing channels.” In startup marketing, a channel is a medium on which a consumer is likely to encounter your brand. Twitter is a channel. So is a company’s blog, their email marketing, display advertising, etc. Writers have their own sets of channels where a reader is likely to encounter their personal brand.

Non-fiction and criticism is a big one. Seattle writer Paulette Perhach has built a hugely successful personal brand, primarily off the success of her Medium piece “The Story of a Fuck Off Fund” (republished in Huffington Post and rethought and expanded upon in some of her later essays).

Twitter and social media are another huge channel. Melissa Broder is widely known outside of writer circles for her crazy popular Twitter account @sosadtoday, which has its own distinct sense of humor and pathos. Willie Fitzgerald, a Seattle writer, has a Twitter feed that feels like Seinfeld run through a meat grinder with the weirder parts of the internet.

Websites can be an expression of a writer’s brand or aesthetic. I love Megan Giddings’s website for the contrast of hot pink and stark black and white excerpts. The aforementioned Paulette Perhach has a nice one, too.

Your online presence is the #1 way people are likely to find you, especially if you don’t have a book out. They’re the “marketing fundamentals” Arielle Jackson mentions, and you can’t afford to half-ass them. Over the next few months, we’ll take a look at fine-tuning the different channels you use to connect with your readers, with our marketing fundamentals series.

But before we get into the nitty gritty of website design and social media marketing and whatnot, we’ll start with the process a lot of marketing departments use to jumpstart their marketing: the competitive analysis.*

Until then, get off Twitter and get some writing done!
 

 
 

 

 

* Disclaimer: I don’t think writing is a competition, and anyone who does is an asshole. A competitive analysis is just a useful metaphor. You’re not trying to put anyone out of business or anything. More on this in the post.

Personal branding part 1: what a personal brand is not

The Otherppl podcast recently opened up its archive for free. I’ve been going through and listening to old episodes with writers I like, and found an interesting conversation between Brad Listi and Jess Walter.

They’re talking about Los Angeles, where Brad Listi (the host of Otherppl) lives, and the conversation turns to creative professionals’ personal brands. This is a recurring subject for Listi, who’s often distrustful of the marketing apparatus around publishing. “There’s something profane about it,” he says to Walter, “but it’s unavoidable.”

Then Jess Walter—who, full disclaimer, is a writer I totally love and admire—completely misses the point:

I think it is avoidable. I think any time somebody says “brand” to you, you rebel. I started out writing non-fiction and I was told, “Write more non-fiction.” I said, “No, I want to write a novel.” I wrote a novel that was called crime fiction and they said “Great! Write mysteries!” and I won an Edgar award and they said “You’re a mystery writer.”

I think being pigeonholed is one of the worst things that can happen for any artist. To have your work shrunk that way to one section of the bookstore, one kind of writing—to me you’re trying to express your view of the world and that’s not going to fit neatly into one genre. So for me it’s been a really simple process: I write the next book I want to read… And not every writer is going to feel that way, but for me, I do think it’s something you can fight. As soon as you know what the Jess Walter brand is, then to me, that makes what you do a lot less interesting.

Listi tries to steer the conversation back to his original point:

I guess I would agree with you there, especially in the approach to your creative work, but I think it also applies to the marketing of that work, you know, your self-presentation, whether it’s online or elsewhere. I feel like brand management—it’s just something that drives me crazy. So when I say it’s unavoidable, I mean that you run into it everywhere and you might engage in it even when you don’t mean to.

Jess Walter concedes the point, but resists a bit. “I have a Twitter account,” he admits, “but the only time I ever tweet about an event is if I think no one’s going to be there, and it’s total fear and shame that causes me to do it.” More evidence for my thesis that a writer’s most complicated relationship is with Twitter.

The concept of personal branding is encrusted with the rhetoric and imagery of marketing. Because of this, writers turn away from it, thinking it doesn’t apply to them.

Walter has made a common mistake: confusing a personal brand with a writer’s chosen genre (or the genre chosen for him or her by a publisher). But Walter isn’t the only one who doesn’t get it. Amazingly, actual marketers who work with writers talk about personal branding in ways that (at least for the average literary writer) are counterproductive, tone-deaf, and completely miss the point.

 

Why writers hate the idea of personal branding

If you google “personal branding for writers” you’re going to find a lot of sites that look like they were designed a decade ago, that use terms like “author-entrepreneur” next to professional headshots, that have pop-ups for “Special Offers!”

This is not language or imagery that squares with how literary writers think about themselves. When they see advice like “Your brand needs a tagline” and “Business cards and other printed marketing materials are old-school, but they work” (both of which are actual quotes from a site I found) they check the fuck out. Does a poet need to “build an ideal reader persona?” Do short story writers get excited about “developing their brand purpose?” Of course not.

No doubt he's thinking about his personal brand's value proposition.

No doubt he's thinking about his personal brand's value proposition.

The concept of personal branding is encrusted with the rhetoric and imagery of marketing. Because of this, writers turn away from it, thinking it doesn’t apply to them.

But if you cut through all the businessy bullshit, you can find working definitions of personal branding that aren’t anathema to art-minded folks. In fact, they can be helpful in understanding how to use social media and build an online presence that feels less like a marketing move and more like a natural extension of your ideas and literary output.

In part two, we talk about what a personal brand is and discuss a few writers who are doing it well.

Why bussing tables is a better post-MFA career choice than adjuncting

The best advice I ever received during my MFA came at the very end, when I asked my fiction professor about how he had balanced money, writing time, and the desire for a teaching career when he was just out of school. If I wanted a job teaching creative writing at the university level, he told me, I didn’t necessarily need to bust my ass adjuncting for years. My professor had been on a lot of hiring committees. “We don’t care if you spent the last five years teaching composition or living on the moon,” he said, “As long as you’ve written a good book or two.” He recommended I keep my overhead low, work as little as possible, and spend as much time as I could writing.

I moved home to Seattle a few weeks later. While some of my grad school friends started picking up classes at community colleges, I looked elsewhere. Eventually I found a job bussing tables and watching the door at a fancy whiskey bar. My friends were confused by my employment choice—hadn’t I just spent four years teaching undergraduates? Why not use that experience to get a job at a community college or a state school?

I liked to tell them this: “Because I did the math.”

 

The problem with adjuncting

In 2017, we all know that making a decent living as a non-tenure-track instructor is impossible. In 2011, when I graduated, this conversation was just getting started. Michael Bérubé, the president of the Modern Language Association for 2012, was one of the first to advocate for a living wage for adjuncts. Under Bérubé, the MLA recommended compensation of $6,800 for a three-credit, semester-long class, and $4,530 for a three-credit, quarter-long class.

Around the same time, the Adjunct Project collected data on the pay and benefits of adjuncts and other “contingent faculty” in the hopes that they could honor the schools that treated their faculty well, draw attention to schools that didn’t, and promote transparency in higher education employment practices. The Adjunct Project crowdsourced a lot of information from faculty at hundreds of schools and shared it all in a Google Spreadsheet. It is a very bleak spreadsheet, and worth your time to look through. You will notice that almost nobody makes anything close to the MLA’s recommended wages.

In 2012, a lot of schools were also slashing their humanities budgets. My alma mater was in the middle of cutting 40% of the English department’s budget over the next two years. It wasn’t a good time to look for academic employment, let alone the utopian wages the MLA hoped for. My adjunct friends were working themselves to death, juggling classes at two, three, or even four schools, for wages just over the poverty line. I felt odd not teaching—it was how I had made my living for the past five years—but when I did a side-by-side comparison of my job bussing tables and adjuncting, my post-MFA employment made a lot more sense.

I wrote prodigiously when I was a busboy. Adjuncting would never have allowed me that kind of output.

 

Bussing tables is more profitable than adjuncting

My alma mater offered $3,000 per course. If I had been lucky enough to teach four classes (which none of the adjuncts in the English department did), that would net me $12K a semester, or $24K a year before taxes.

As a front-of-house restaurant employee, I made a good base hourly (Washington doesn’t exempt tipped employees from the minimum wage like some states, and my restaurant paid more than the minimum) and a percentage of total sales during the shift. Bussing tables and answering the phone, I made about $5K more a year than I would have in the best case scenario adjuncting at my alma mater.

Adjunct life.

Adjunct life.

 

Bussing tables gives you health insurance

Adjuncting often doesn’t. I don’t know if it’s changed—I hope it has—but in 2012, my alma mater didn’t offer health insurance to contingent faculty. My restaurant offered very good health, dental, and vision after six months of employment. Neither job offered a 401(k).

Keep your overhead low, work as little as possible, and spend as much time as you can writing.

 

Bussing tables gives you more time to write than adjuncting

As a graduate TA at my alma mater, I was expected to put twenty hours a week into teaching one composition class. I usually put in between thirty and forty, depending on the week (student conferences, man, they’ll get you every time). I don’t think that teaching four classes instead of one would necessarily quadruple the time—lesson plans can be reused, after all—but managing four classes in less than forty hours a week is a fantasy. And anybody who’s taught knows that teaching will eat up as much time as you’re willing to give it.

At the restaurant, I worked between thirty and thirty-five hours a week (twenty-five and thirty-five once I started waiting tables) and when I left, I got to leave my work at work. As a restaurant employee, I was on a much different schedule than my nine-to-five friends, and I spent a lot of mornings and afternoons cranking out short stories. I wrote prodigiously when I was a busboy. Adjuncting would never have allowed me that kind of output.

  

The importance of the post-MFA career choice

It’s easy to put writing on the backburner. You have to make enough money to live, after all. And you have to pay bills. You have to see your friends, do laundry, call your mom, clean your hallway closet, or execute on any of the other dozens of excuses you regularly deploy to write off your lack of literary output. But let me tell you: if you are serious about leaving your MFA and getting a fuckton of writing done, then take a job that you can’t easily use as an excuse.

I worked in that restaurant for two-and-a-half years, and the decision to stay for as long as I did is tied with the decision to attend my MFA for the Best Life Choice I Made for my Writing Award. So if you’re about to leave your graduate program and you’re thinking about adjuncting, remember my professor’s advice: keep your overhead low, work as little as possible, and spend as much time as you can writing.

Hot money tips from the Whiting Foundation

Tony Tulathimutte, a recent Whiting Award winner, posted some dynamite financial advice for writers on Facebook. This came from the Whiting Foundation's financial literacy seminar, and I'm reproducing it here, with some annotations of my own, based on his original Facebook post.

 

Student loans and other debt

  • If you work for a cumulative ten years in government agencies or non-profits (including state schools), your student loans can be completely forgiven through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.
  • All debt is negotiable, especially if it's old. Credit card companies and other debt providers can be haggled with. To this I'll add that debt refinancing is a thing and people should take advantage of it. SoFi is a company that refinances student debt. Their repayment plans might not be right for everyone, but it's worth looking into.
taxes

 

Business expenses and tax write-offs for writers

Let me preface this by pointing you to this Writer's Digest article, which talks about when writers can claim business expenses on their taxes. The tl;dr is you can claim them most of the time, even if you're only trying to make money writing, but there's a catch:

Also, it’s important to note that if you claim your writing as a business, the IRS expects you to start making money after a couple of years. So if you’re making minimal money, for tax purposes you may only be able to claim your work as a hobby, which would allow you to deduct expenses only up to the amount of income you’ve made from writing.

And as with any tax advice, take it with a grain of salt and for fucksake, talk to a tax professional before you actually do this. With that, here's Tony's advice. You can claim:

  • All books, magazine subscriptions, movie/theater/museum tickets, and anything else you can reasonably claim as research can be deducted.
  • If you work form home (for example, if you're freelancing), you can claim a percentage of your phone and internet bill, along with utilities and the rent you pay for the square footage of your office.
  • Clothes you buy for a reading or performance.
  • Gifts for business associates (like that bottle of wine for your agent)
  • Fees from publicists, photographers, or videographers.
  • Advertising and promotion (flyers, ad placement, social ad promotion)
  • Office supplies and equipment
  • Classes for professional development
  • Professional organization membership dues
  • All travel that isn't your daily commute (like taking the train to another city for a reading or flying to AWP), car mileage, and per diem expenses when traveling on business
  • Web hosting and domain registration
  • Rented studios or office space
  • Large purchases (like a laptop)

The best way to keep track of business expenses is to have a separate credit card that you only use for writing stuff.  A comment on Tony's original post recommends you keep any receipt above $75, in case of audit (although it should be noted that audits are rare for people making as little money as most professional writers).

 

Investments

Want to have a 401(k) or a portfolio but don't want to line the pockets of capitalism's slimiest douchebags? The Whiting Foundation recommends looking into ethical investors like Calvert, The Reinvestment Fund, Parnassus Fund, and TIAA-CREF.

Actual footage from inside Wells Fargo HQ.

Actual footage from inside Wells Fargo HQ.

 

Roughing out your yearly expenses

To figure out how much money you'll need to live in a year, add together your rent, utilities, internet, phone, car/transportation fees, groceries, booze, recreation, classes/workshops, entertainment, subscriptions, clothes, books, student loan payments, investment in savings, and health expenses.

Then, to calculate your professional hourly rate, divide annual costs by 1,500. Multiply that by 8 to get your day rate. Multiply your day rate by 5 to get your weekly rate.

Hat tip to Tony Tulathimutte for sharing the Whiting Foundation's sweet sweet money secrets!

Social media marketing for writers: jabs and right hooks and Twitter and talking like a human

I had an acquaintance who joined Facebook for the sole purpose of promoting his book. This is, without a doubt, the worst reason to join a social network, and my acquaintance is a textbook example of why.

Within hours of accepting his friend request, I started to get the posts. “Coming soon, A Great Masterpiece by Author K. Authorson. Pre-order now!” or “Blurby Blurbson calls A Great Masterpiece ‘A book for our times.’ Have you ordered your copy yet?”

You have to admire the impulse, I guess. Agents and publishers want their authors to be active on social media, and in the age of slashed PR budgets, social media is key. But oh man is this not the way to do it. Self-promotion like this doesn’t work on social media because it’s fundamentally antisocial. It’s like walking into a party and saying very loudly and repeatedly, “Look at how charming I am! I’m so funny! Everybody likes me!”

"I totally fit in here!"

"I totally fit in here!"

People don’t like to be sold to. But if you’re trying to sell a book, what else are you supposed to do?

 

Gary Vaynerchuk’s jabs and right hooks

In 2013, Gary Vaynerchuk, a famous marketing dude, published a book called Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World. This was just as brands were starting to figure out social media, and it gave struggling social media marketers a blueprint for how to sell their product without looking like a total shill.

The key is to give much, much more than you take. You add value, you add value, you add value, then you ask for a favor.

Vaynerchuk’s thesis is this: brands are failing at social media because they don’t understand how to nurture their followers. They are giving them near-constant sales ploys, and nobody follows anybody or anything on social media to be sold to. Instead of constant sales ploys, brands would do better to build a feed of content that entertains their followers, or emotionally engages them, or gives them something useful for free, so when the marketers do have an “ask”—buy our product, come to our event, etc.—their followers are warmed up and more predisposed to say yes. The key is to give much, much more than you take. You add value, you add value, you add value, then you ask for a favor.

Vaynerchuk uses a boxing metaphor for this. A boxer jabs at their opponent to soften them up and get them ready for the knock-out blow, the right hook—Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook, get it?

 

So what does a jab look like?

A jab adds value for a brand’s followers. It entertains them, gives them something for free, or otherwise stops them and enriches his or her day. For lifestyle brands, it might be an inspiring picture:

Other brands might post tips:

My favorite brand on social media, Arby’s, is run by nerds. Their posts are a mishmash of meat puns, video game references, and sci-fi and cartoon fan service:

For the Nintendo game Metroid’s 30th anniversary

Vaynerchuk also notes that a good jab varies from platform to platform. An interesting tweet has to be a lot more compact than a comparable Facebook post. Snapchat has its own weird conventions, and an Instagram post better be gorgeous as hell, or you won’t have engaged followers for long.

 

What this looks like for writers

I should note first that when I talk about writers on social media, I’m defaulting to Twitter. Twitter is the go-to network for most social-smart writers, for reasons more intelligent people than I have laid out (like this person and this person).

Twitter primarily rewards people who listen and give, not those who ask and take.
— Gary Vaynerchuk

The right hook should be obvious: buy my book, read my new poem, pick up this journal, etc. But the jab isn’t quite so easy. Writers most likely don’t have cleaning advice or discount codes or photographs of attractive young people reading their books, so what can they offer?

It helps to think about why people follow writers on social media. Writers, editors, and agents follow writers for networking purposes. Readers follow them because they enjoy the writer’s work, or maybe just because they enjoy their social media presence and commentary. So what might jabs look like for writers?

  • Retweeting an interesting article
  • Sharing a short critique of an article that’s going around
  • Commenting on current events
  • Sharing creative work (and tagging the writer—it’s nice to know somebody’s reading and appreciating you)
  • Joining conversations when you have something to add

The key is to come by it honestly. Don’t force yourself into other people’s conversations. Don’t try for humor if you’re not funny. Twitter is an ongoing conversation, and it takes time to learn your place in it. As Vaynerchuk says, “Twitter primarily rewards people who listen and give, not those who ask and take.”

Looking for examples? These writers have exceptional Twitter accounts:

How is a literary writer like a startup?

Or, why I started this blog

At my new job, I work with a lot of early-stage SaaS companies. SaaS, for those of you who don’t follow startup world, is an acronym for “software as a service” (like Spotify or Dropbox). I write content for the CEOs of these young SaaS startups.

At first I struggled to put myself in their shoes, because I—like most writers, I suspect—ascribe a demi-god like level of worldliness and knowledge to businessmen. These people built revenue-generating businesses out of nothing and I went many tens of thousands of dollars into debt so I could get a degree that means fuck-all. We could not be further apart.

So I was relieved when it turned out that many of these CEOs don’t know what they’re doing. Early-stage startups struggle to get traction. Many have an investor or two in their corner and a small revenue stream, but they’re years away from stability. If they’ve never started a company before, CEOs have a lot of questions. How do I fundraise? Who can get me an introduction to a venture capital firm? Should I hire a VP of whateverthefuck? Am I tracking the right metrics?

Is my product even any good?

These companies are, I realized, the startup equivalents of me and my writing friends. Our questions are not so dissimilar. How do I make money by writing? Who can introduce me to an editor? Where can I best spend my time and resources? Does my Twitter follower count matter?

Is my writing even any good?

The more I read and thought about it, the more similarities I found.

Hey Submittable, free business idea: build in functionality that tells the submitter how far into the document preview a reviewer got. I would kill to have that kind of insight into when I lost an editor’s attention.

 

Being met with thunderous silence is not unique to literary writers

Have you ever signed up for a service online, dinked around with it for fifteen minutes or a few hours, then never used it again? You’re doing the thing that keeps early-stage startup CEOs up at night. “Why can’t we keep users?” they wonder. “I know the product is good. Do these people not care? Do they not recognize quality when they see it?”

Writers know this feeling well. From the constant rejection to the paltry two hearts on your tweet about being published in a good journal, oh man do we know this feeling.

At least SaaS companies have ways to track where and how their users stopped using. Writers don’t get to know if an editor made it past the first page of their story or not. Hey Submittable, free business idea: build in functionality that tells the submitter how far into the document preview a reviewer got. I would kill to have that kind of insight into when I lost an editor’s attention.

 

Startups and writers are both figuring out how to leverage connections

CEOs who don’t know people who know people in VC firms in the Bay Area stand as much chance of getting funded as I do of getting published in the New Yorker. CEOs are forever combing their LinkedIns and their email contacts to figure out who can introduce them to their next investor or partner. Once they do get connected, they start worrying about whether or not they’ll blow the pitch.

Professors throughout my education insisted that the writing world didn’t work like that. That you had a career or didn’t based on the quality of your work alone. I do not know why this is an opinion so commonly held by creating writing professors, but it is total and unmitigated bullshit. Yes, lucky breaks do happen, and talent is a necessity, but any smart writer who’s been hustling for a while knows that a solicitation from an editor (or an offer to vouch for you to an agent, or whatever) is a key. And we, like CEOs, worry about breaking it off in the lock.

 

They're both fucking broke

fucking-broke-dude.gif

At my first startup, the two co-founders didn’t pay themselves a salary for years. They might still not be taking a salary for all I know. They did this because the company wasn’t yet profitable enough. This is totally common in startups, I was surprised to find out.

Even when they’re producing a decent revenue stream, startups are still broke, because growth means recurring expenses like payroll and health insurance, and subscribing to all the software services you need isn’t cheap, and oh my god we’re outgrowing our current office but we can’t afford rent on a bigger one, etc., etc.

Writers are maybe the one group of people who obsess about money as much as startup CEOs. Especially when you’re just out of an MFA, or trying to make it as an adjunct or part-timer, money is scarce. Then there’s that balance we have to strike: take a job at a coffee shop and be broke but still have the mental energy and time to write, or take a nine-to-five, live more comfortably, but write less.

Writers need to learn to hustle like entrepreneurs, because that’s what they are: people trying to make a career out of nothing more than ideas.

Writers and startups are both figuring out how to market themselves

Ask a startup CEO to show you the first few versions of their logo or website. I guarantee you they will groan with embarrassment.

It takes a long time to figure out how to present yourself to potential customers or investors and not make an ass out of yourself, just like it takes a long time to figure out how to write a query letter or work with an editor.

 

What writers can learn from startups

Startups have turned being appealing and getting in front of the right people into a science. It’s called marketing. The more time I spend in marketing departments at startups, the more I’m convinced that writers could benefit from the tools and strategies and mindsets marketers use—if only they knew about them.

The woeful state of practical education for creative writers is a topic for another post, but suffice it to say that most of us are on our own to figure out how to manage our professional lives. Writers need to learn to hustle like entrepreneurs, because that’s what they are: people trying to make a career out of nothing more than ideas.

Hustle icon

Once during the intermission of a poetry reading, I watched a young woman approach the guy who had organized it. This woman introduced herself, said she was new in town (having just graduated from Columbia, she casually mentioned), and she wanted to be involved in readings. Could she send a sample of her work to be considered to read at the next event in the series?

I was taken aback. How tacky to show up to an ongoing reading series and just ask the organizer if you can read! She also admitted this was her first time at the venue—Hugo House, a beloved space for the literary arts in Seattle. Clearly this was an arrogant Columbia student who thought she could stroll into any literary scene in the country and own the place.

I admit, I really wanted the organizer to smile and nod and say something sarcastic to put her in her place. I didn’t get my wish. He was quite polite. He asked for her email address, requested she send samples, and talked about when the next event would be. When she read at Hugo House the following month, to a packed house and applause—because she was fantastic—I grumbled.

Clearly this was an arrogant Columbia student who thought she could stroll into any literary scene in the country and own the place.

 

This was three years ago. Back then I was still convinced that good work would magically find an audience; that marketing meant nothing more than writing poems or stories that glittered with nuggets of genius; and that a hard worker who wrote a lot but published little, toiling away in her bedroom, would somehow become the next hot thing and the Paris Review would come knocking and the big five would fight for publish her first book etc., etc.

I was being an asshole.

I wasn’t thinking about how this writer was doing something very hard. Selling yourself like that is awkward and it sucks, but if you want people to take you seriously, you have to do it. A lot of reading lineups are determined based on who knows who, and an outsider has a natural disadvantage—even if she did go to Columbia. This writer showed up to check out the reading, decided it would be a good fit for her, figured out who to talk to, talked to him, and made a space for herself in the next lineup. She did it without coming off like a creep, too, which is a fine line to walk. This writer was a fucking badass, and I didn’t see it.

Now, three years later, this writer is my personal hustle icon. Her Twitter account is well-followed. There are pictures of her chilling with Sherman Alexie. She rolled into Seattle and commenced to own the place, not because she was pushy and loud and got in everybody’s face, but because her work was incredible, she was smart about who she talked to (marketers would call it “tactical”), and she asked politely.

If you’re good enough, that’s all you have to do: ask. Don’t be afraid to do it.

Is it okay to ask a journal for a writer's contact information?

Chapbook superstar Megan Giddings had an interesting question this morning on Twitter:

A few people responded and said they thought it would be okay, and Megan replied with something interesting:

 

Like many of us, Megan didn't want to come off like a psychopath. Editing lit journals is often an opaque business—sometimes even to other editors. Every journal operates differently, and the rules about what's a fair question, what's an imposition, and what's off-limits are murky.

So if you're in Megan's position, how might you proceed?

  • First I'd contact the editor and say you enjoyed the piece and would love to solicit the writer for your own journal.
  • Here's the key: in many situations, it might be a good idea to ask the editor if she can ask the writer if it's okay to share their contact information with you. Why take this step? Sometimes people are hard to contact on purpose. You don't know that person's situation, and they might not want to have their email address shared, even between editors who appreciate their work. If the editor shares the writer's email address with you and the writer would rather it have been kept private, that could hurt their relationship with the editor.
  • If the writer's willing to talk, solicit away.

Don't be a psychopath

We expect to be marketed to by businesses. It’s how they get new customers. It’s part of their whole deal. We do not expect to be marketed to by individual writers, and the thought of having to market their work makes most writers uncomfortable. There are two good reasons for that:

  1. We tend to be introverted The kind of person who regularly spends hours in their room writing poems or stories is not the kind of person who likes doing things like networking.

  2. Many writers who market themselves are psychopaths.

Let me explain. At my first AWP (Chicago, 2009), I was manning the table for my university’s literary journal. A woman with a haunted look in her eye came up to talk to me. She was pulling a huge piece of wheeled luggage and wearing a raincoat. It was not raining that day.

“Hi, what do you do?” she asked.

I explained our journal and our contest and asked her what kind of stuff she wrote.

“Do you publish children’s literature?” she asked. “Rhymes?”

I explained that we did not, but we did publish poetry.

“I write children’s poetry,” the woman said. “Let me give you my card.”

She pulled out a huge stack of business cards rubber-banded together and gave me one. “Flip it over,” she suggested.

I did. She had drawn something on it that I couldn’t identify. I laughed because I was feeling very awkward and I wanted her to feel at ease and leave me alone.

“It’s a can of worms,” she explained. “Do you know why I drew a can of worms on my business card?”

“No,” I said. “Why?”

“Because.” Here she paused. “When you open a can of worms—” She grinned. “You never know what you’re going to get.”

I didn’t know what to say. What did this have to do with children’s poetry? Had she drawn this on every one of her business cards, just as a conversation starter?

“Thanks for the card,” I said. “Would you like a postcard with our contact info?”

She waved it away and left without a word.

Writers at AWP smilin at me like

Writers at AWP smilin at me like

 

This is an egregious example, but I think it’s fair to say that many writers don’t come off well when they market themselves. They look like they’re narcissistic, or they wheedle, or they beg, or they assume that you care deeply about their work, or they look like they’re trying to be the big man/woman on the scene. There are more pitfalls for writers trying to market themselves than there are for startups.

I think this is because writers are sensitive. We read for subtext. When the sweaty guy on stage says, “Please come to my reading next Tuesday, I think you’ll really like it,” we hear that please and think that what he really means is “PLEASE come to my reading next Tuesday, I’m afraid nobody will show up and I’ll be the laughingstock of my friends.”

One quick thought on this before we talk about how not to be a psychopath: we should give each a break. Writing is hard. Putting your work into the world is hard. Making the world care about it—and continuing to write when the world ignores you—is probably the hardest thing of all. The next time you see a writer pushing their new book or their reading and they’re coming off as a little sweaty and desperate, give them a fucking break. Appreciate the hustle.

So how do you market yourself without looking like a psycopath?

 

Understand who you’re marketing to

If a startup makes software for digital agencies and one of their prospects turns out to be health technology company, the startup doesn’t market to them any more. That company has no use for the startup’s product. This seems obvious, but a lot of writers screw it up all the time. Look at can of worms lady from AWP. When I told her we didn’t publish children’s poetry, she continued to try to market to me. Why?

Another common example of this is writers submitting to the wrong journals. PANK does not publish the same kind of stuff as Glimmer Train, yet that doesn’t stop writers from sending the same submission to both journals. Do your market research. If you submit to journals that publish pieces of a similar aesthetic to yours, you’re more likely to get accepted.

 

Know when to shut up

Marketing departments spend a lot of time and energy making sure that the right prospect hears the right message at the right time. They also spend a lot of time worrying about burning people out, too. You don't want your future customers to get sick of hearing about you before they've ever tried the product.

For writers, the easiest application of this is do your plug and move on. If somebody asks you about it, assume they want to know more. If they don’t ask you about it, don’t keep bringing it up.

 

Be genuine

If you’re having a conversation with a potential publisher or a more established writer who could help you, make sure it’s actually a conversation. Ask them questions. Talk about their work or their interests. Act like a human being and not someone who’s only talking to them to get a favor. This goes double if you’re at AWP or another conference full of wild-eyed writers desperate for attention.

How do you balance marketing your own work and not feeling like a total shill? Let me know.

Mensah Demary on literary Twitter

Mensah Demary has a great piece on the value (and issues) of literary Twitter up on Electric Literature. Go read it here. My favorite part quoted below:

We earn readers; they do not cater to us, and they need not care about our insecurities. They do not care about our MFAs, or our lack of MFAs, or whether MFAs are aiding or crippling modern literature. They do not care about degrees. Readers do not care about the elements of craft. What is often discussed within Literary Twitter are the wants and machinations of writers, and not the desires of the readers who, presumably, do not wish to write, and haven’t written much outside of emails since college, and are happy with their non-writer lives, but are avid readers hungry for new books, new voices, for connection.
— Mensah Demary

From MFA to startup life

For most of my life, I didn’t have to try very hard. From high school, through college and into grad school, things more or less fell into my lap: good grades, opportunities, jobs, a few publications. When I graduated from my MFA, I wanted to land a tenure-track job, but I knew I couldn’t do that with my current CV. I decided I would work a non-academic job and write hard, publish a novel, then land that job teaching fiction writing. Tenure would follow soon. I figured I’d have a novel out within two years of graduating, three tops. Maybe even a novel and a collection.

Ian-Denning-had-dumb-plans

I waited tables for a few years. I wrote. I published some things. Writing novels turned out to be harder than I anticipated, and I was flummoxed. I was working harder than I had worked in my MFA, but success was elusive. I was also pushing thirty, and didn’t want to wait tables forever. It was time for a career, and it probably wasn’t going to be in academia. Feeling like I was giving up on my dream job, I stopped waiting tables and joined the marketing department of a small startup.

That’s where this story starts.

What do marketers do, and what does that have to do with creative writing?

A marketing department is a group of desperate people using every tool at their disposal to claw their way out of obscurity and into a serene and unspoiled place they call “top-of-mind.”

For somebody educated in an artistic discipline, a marketing department can feel cold and mercenary. Marketers are very logical. They make all of their decisions based on data, which they spend most of their time cultivating and organizing and finding new ways to play with. They have no problem throwing away the most creative treatment of an ad or a landing page if another, less creative version gets more clicks.

They also hustle like crazy. At any moment in the day, one of my coworkers is on the phone with a partner, arranging introductions and list-swapping; one of them is setting up a webinar or an informative lunch with a friend of the company; one of them is interviewing a client about her experience with our service; and one of them is optimizing ads to improve our click-through rate. A marketing department is an engine whose purpose is to make its vehicle more well-known and well-liked.

There’s no reason writers should suck this badly at presenting themselves—they just don’t know any better.

After a few years of getting comfortable in marketing departments, I started to wonder: why don’t writers do this kind of stuff? Writers are not good marketers. Most of them are terrible marketers, in fact. They don’t understand social media. They mumble and drop pages when they read in front of audiences. They allow their books to be published with covers that look like something their mom made in Photoshop. They tell themselves “Strong work will be find an audience eventually,” but they don’t do anything that would help them find that audience. There’s no reason writers should suck this badly at presenting themselves—they just don’t know any better.

What this blog is and is not

This blog is about learning how to market yourself as a writer the same way a startup markets itself as a business. It’s not about craft or inspiration or how to get published—it’s about marketing. Two provisions:

  1. I’m not saying I’m an expert in this field. I’m just thinking through it, looking for common pitfalls and examples of writers that do it well.

  2. This isn’t about changing your work to make it more appealing to a general audience. It’s about making the work you’re already doing as visible and easy to find as possible.

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