Full disclosure: I have book coming out on 3rd September. I am in excellent company; at the last count, nearly 600 other books were coming out on the very same day. They’re calling it “Super Thursday”, but for most of the authors of those books, the adjective is ill-chosen. It’s more likely to be the kind of Thursday that Douglas’ Adams’ Arthur Dent could never get the hang of: confusing, stressful and culminating in annihilation. And I can’t imagine how hard it must be for the publicists dealing with all those books, trying hard to make each author feel valued and special.
This year has been especially hard for authors trying to sell their work. Tours cancelled; visits postponed; bookshops closed, sometimes indefinitely. Authors rely on in-person events to sell books—festivals, school visits, bookshops and library signings. Outside of publisher-sanctioned events, authors often find it hard to raise awareness for their work, especially on social media, where they can encounter criticism for indulging in self-promotion, or drawing attention to praise. And authors are often reluctant to think of their work as a real job. Raised on the dubious ideal of art for art’s sake, we are often deeply uncomfortable discussing the money part of the job. That has resulted in a booming publishing industry for most, except for authors, whose average yearly earnings amount to something around £11,000—significantly less than the minimum wage.
Clearly authors need support. Sadly, now is not the time for them to expect it from their publishers. Gone are the days when authors could afford to be reclusive, knowing that their publishers would be active on their behalf. Nowadays, authors are routinely expected to be performers, salespeople and marketers all at the same time. And to do that, we need to let go of certain toxic narratives, not least the myth that artists shouldn’t care about money or sales, or sully their art by trying to make a living.
Why is this myth so tenacious? This false logic would never be applied to any profession outside the arts. No-one accuses a doctor or a teacher of “selling out” by accepting a salary, or for applying for a better-paid job. No-one would choose an amateur over a professional lawyer or accountant. Artists have bills and mortgages too, and the idea that art is corrupted by the artist making a living is not only wrong, but desperately elitist: a throwback from a time when only the rich could afford to write, and when having to work for a living (as opposed to inheriting wealth) was seen as low and vulgar.
Nowadays, this inherited snobbery only endures in the world of the arts, and artists themselves are helping perpetuate it. Too many writers think of themselves as not being “proper writers”, or agree to work for “exposure”, and if that were somehow a positive, rather than what killed Captain Oates. Even professional writers suffer from this, hence the reticence of many to engage in self-promotion. I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone, especially this year: with all my live events cancelled and two new books to promote amid an avalanche of celebrity titles, I’ve had to face the fact that a certain amount of online self-promotion is not only necessary, but that sometimes it’s the only promotion an author is likely to get.
I say a certain amount of self-promotion. Social media has a limited tolerance for authors talking about their books. I find that the best results are achieved by balancing self-promoting posts with things that will benefit readers. On Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, I’ve got into the habit of posting writing tips, sharing artwork and snippets of work-in-progress, as well as engaging regularly with readers, bloggers, writers, YouTubers, Instagrammers—all of which seems only natural if you’re expecting them to engage with you. After all, a writer’s role is primarily to engage; to make a connection with readers; to share their experience with the world. I now find that what I post on Twitter often gets the attention of the press, and can encourage people to commission longer pieces on aspects of my work and the topics that interest me. Right now, I’m writing a lot about feminism and fairytales, but Twitter has led to me writing pieces on such diverse subjects as Pre-Raphaelite art, Mayan customs, folk music, copyright, festivals, the publishing industry—and yes, chocolate.
But engaging with the online community is very much a quid pro quo: during the build-up to my book launch, I’ve been offering Q&A sessions to bloggers, writing various pieces for my own website and others; taking photographs of my book in various settings for Instagram; seeking out suitable podcasts; contacting potential reviewers; liaising with independent bookshops; updating my Amazon profile; sending out press releases; organising giveaways and competitions; printing and signing bookplates and cards; writing reading-group guides; recording audio and video clips; and finding interesting exclusive stuff to include on my website and in my newsletter.
And yes, it takes time; but it’s time well-deployed. And yes, it takes valuable time away from the actual process of writing, but it’s short-sighted to look at it that way. No job ever really consists of doing just one thing. The publishing world is changing fast; authors, too, need to change to survive. And if that change entails leaving our ivory towers, engaging with our audience and admitting that we too have bills to pay, then I say all the better.
Joanne Harris' Orfeia will be published by Gollancz on 3rd September (£14.99, 9781473229952)