On being interesting

Part of writing is selling yourself and part of selling yourself is being interesting. This is not easy. Not for me, at least.

Should you have the great fortune to be picked up by an agent or somehow manage to inveigle a publishing contract you become a commodity. The publishing industry needs a package, an angle, a way to attract attention to your work. That might just be you.

You won’t immediately be dispatched to do interviews with the great and the good. Journalism is an overstretched industry and most interviews you see are self-written: the tired journo will give it the once-over, maybe cut a few key sentences and shove it in, a way of filling up a column that otherwise she’d have to think about. Here, done and gone.

Occasionally, though, your life will chime into the zeitgeist. Said tired journo will be struggling to fill her pages and something you mentioned as an aside will strike her as worthy of deeper exploration. Maybe you’ll get that elusive personal chat (sometimes in person, sometimes via Skype or telephone) and what you said on the spur of the moment will be unpicked, stretched, your viscera unravelled in front of you.

This is good. This is what you (or at least your backers) want. It’s your job to think of something you’ve done, seen or been that might attract attention – no matter if you wanted to talk about it; no matter if you’re forced to examine some aspect of yourself you wish was left so far in the back of the closet that it might as well be in Narnia.

More likely you – as a newbie writer – will be mining the ‘local interest’ seam. It’s not the Times Literary Supplement you’ll be aiming for, it’ll be the parish magazine. Think about all the places you’ve lived, all the great bookshops you’ve frequented, the library in which you were raised: that’s your target market.

Example: my parents used to take me to Bingley library every week, until I was old enough to go on my own, and until I was old enough to go to Bradford Central Library on my own. Thus I’d be looking to the local Telegraph and Argus for publicity. They’d find me a lot more interesting than the Shetland Advertiser, especially as I just made that up.

Note that people are interested in people, not work. Unless your story is truly fascinating, a hot-button-clickbait-zeitgeist-relevant-to-everyone-world-shaker, it’s you, not your work, that sells.

Everyone is interesting. I’ve never yet met a single person who hasn’t at least one good tale to tell. And if you’re reading this then you’ve got something I’d love to hear about, be it your achievements, your ambitions or your frustrations. Not yet had the moment to do what you really want to do? The story of why you want to do that one thing, or your reasons why you haven’t yet done it – well, the key word there is ‘story’.

Think of it this way: if you were in a novel, what would you accentuate of your own life? What would you hide? What would people want to read about you?

And then forget all that. Because all people really want to know about is where you grew up.

The modern writer

I am a writer. I write, right?

I’m not too sure that the novelists of a hundred, fifty, even twenty years ago would recognise the job as it is now.

The clue is in the word ‘job’. In the current day and the current environment, writing is a job, a profession like any other. The days of an author producing his work and then returning quietly to his desk to crack on with his (or her – please excuse any lapses of this kind) writing are gone.

Once upon a time a writer could expect their work on a particular novel to end after delivery of the final manuscript to his or her editor. Maybe not quite end: there are always decisions to be made and publicity to attend, but they could rely on the publishing house to at least organise anything. The author might even get paid expenses.

Things are very different now. It’s not the publishing houses fault, more a condition of the industry. But these days the author is now expected to be an equal partner – if not more – in pushing their own work. The author’s job has changed. Now they not only have to produce a quality piece of writing, they’re expected to sell it too; to drum up their own audience.

So a writer has to produce their work and promote it. They also have to manage finances in a way they never had to before; writers are mostly self-employed, so they have to do their tax self-assessments and find their own expenses. And, unless they’re very lucky or very well established, they have to do all this whilst working a normal, paid job as well.

So why should we go through publishing companies at all? If we’re doing all the hard work anyway, why not just cut out the middle man and do it all ourselves?

It’s getting increasingly hard to give a convincing answer to that. Part of it, of course, is that there’s still a tremendous cachet to be published via the traditional routes, especially by one of the big houses. Another reason is that, although the editor’s role on individual projects may have slackened, they still do have many skills that most people – especially first-time authors – lack. The big publishers have copy-editors, art departments, legal teams, marketing and publicity sections who know who to go to in order to get good press. They can make it all happen in the way a lone individual simply can’t.

But how long will that last? In an era when you can pay $5 and get 1,000 Facebook friends, or where I could subcontract a stranger to write this blog, isn’t self-publishing the road to go down?

Hold on there, youngster. If you thought you had to do a lot for the traditional publishers, that’s nothing on what you have to do if you go it alone.

Okay, setting up internet payment systems is (probably – I don’t actually know) straightforward these days. Building a website won’t break the bank. Yeah, you can get open-copyright artwork fairly easily and you can find free software to format your book so it appears ‘right’ on the page. But are you prepared to phone up all the local bookshops in the area (or country) to get them to stock your book? That’s assuming you get physical paper copies at all: first you had to make the decision to trust a self-publishing or print-on-demand company with what, to me, would be a huge amount of money. Even here you have to know what you’re doing as the horror-stories, even with the most reputable self-publishing companies, are still doing the rounds. Make sure you know what you’re paying for. And whatever you do, don’t cough up extra for ‘publicity’.

As an aside, I’m aware of authors whose sales have mostly come from car boot sales, conventions, craft fairs and the like. Are you prepared to give up all that time to flog your masterpiece? Or would you prefer to be working on the follow-up?

So are e-books the answer? Well, I don’t know of any author who’d say they’d not prefer to have a physical copy in their hands, but, leaving that aside, the main problem with e-books is their invisibility. Do you know how many e-books are released each year? I don’t (and I did just try and check – honest – but my mammoth 5-minute search failed to reveal anything easily digestible). But it’s a lot. And believe me when I tell you that the big success stories (I’m looking at you, EL James) are very much the exception.

So you still have to do the work – you still have to do the publicity, to write your press release, to push your blog – whether with a publisher or not. This is where the publisher has the advantage, as their publicity departments will have the names and numbers of people in the media, the right contacts for endorsements… And they should be able to compensate for/work around/train you in any skills you lack.

So I’m a writer. I write. I’m also financier, lawyer, accountant, art director, publicity agent, relentless self-promoter, ego-maniac, schizophrenic.

Don’t call me an artist. I’m an entrepreneur. I am the brand.