On information, self-promotion, plugging and pimpage

There’s been a fair amount of discussion here and there about such things, prompted mostly by the time of year – it’s time for nominations and/or voting on a good few genre awards; the Hugos, the BSFA Awards, the David Gemmell Awards.

I’ve been watching with interest, because, yes, I have a dog in this fight. I am on the long list for the David Gemmell Legend Award for best fantasy novel, with Dangerous Waters. I’m also an Arthur C Clarke Award judge this year and next, and judging the James White Short Story Award. While these are different in that they’re juried and judged rather than voted on, it’s fair to say I’m taking a closer interest in the whole awards business than has been my custom.

There are some very strong opinions out there about what level of mention an author may reasonably make of such things. There are those who seem to think so much as mentioning their own novel’s eligibility for nomination crosses some invisible line into the unacceptable. Other people seem to see nothing wrong in writers actively canvassing through their blogs and regularly tweeting Vote for Me! Vote for Me! Then there’s every shade of opinion in between.

I have a good deal of sympathy with those who think that an author’s work should speak for itself. That a book should prompt others apart from the writer to speak for it, if it is to have any claim on a nomination or votes. Personally I cringe at the thought of waving my new novel at people uninvited, still less urging them to buy it with the extravagant self-praise that I occasionally encounter, in person or online. I was brought up to consider such behaviour utterly reprehensible, no ifs or buts. Besides, in today’s book trade, such behaviour is all too often associated, fairly or unfairly, with the most deluded of self-published no-hopers.

Except – how are people to know that an author’s book is eligible for nominations or long/short-listed, if no one tells them? It’s no answer to say that if readers are following an award they will already know. What if they’re not even aware of that particular award? Is it a publisher’s responsibility to tell potentially interested parties? Insofar as they can, yes it is, and they do (though I’ve seen that criticised as well). But what if an author’s fans don’t happen to follow that publisher’s website or Twitter feed? I am getting fed up, in this age of information overload, with being told I should/must follow dozens and dozens of feeds, blogs, social media manifestations and networks, that I have some sort of nebulous obligation to keep current with such things, if I am really committed. Sorry but there are a great many other calls on my time and the number of hours in a day is unaffected by my personal level of commitment.

The most effective and straightforward way for me as a reader to learn what’s going on with the specific authors I am interested in is to check their personal feeds and blogs. So why should they be discouraged by online hostility insisting they’re not allowed (and who exactly decides this anyway?) to tell me about their eligibility, nominations etc? With that insistence followed by threats that if they do, such behaviour should automatically stop any right-thinking person for voting for them now or in the future! When, incidentally, publishers’ marketing departments and publicity officers for these awards will be encouraging those authors to share exactly that information, in keeping with their own job descriptions. When one of the most valuable functions of awards is to prompt the debate and discussion so vital for keeping a genre developing in ever more interesting ways for readers and writers alike.

What about what happens after that? If such self-promotion is acceptable, where does one draw a line? Is it acceptable to let people know your work is listed/eligible for an award? But not to openly solicit votes? But not to post, for instance, a short story online for people to read for free? But not for an author to privately email all their contacts who might be eligible to vote, offering to send them a copy direct, at once? Because I’ve seen all those things go on. And yes, I can see how the latter practises might well skew a vote, if one candidate’s material is far more accessible than another’s. But who’s going to decide these things, given subjective opinion on what’s acceptable behaviour can vary so widely between different people? More practically, who on earth is going to enforce any such rules that might be made?

I’ve seen similar hostility directed towards authors retweeting or linking to favourable mentions of their books. But why shouldn’t we direct potential readers towards information which might help them decide if our book is likely to be to their taste and is something they might like to consider buying? This is a business after all and authors operate in an increasingly hostile environment. Changes in bookselling have pretty much done away with the days when a reader could browse a shop’s shelves and expect to see the new releases and the midlist authors displayed on equal terms with the big names, for the reader to pick and choose on a level playing field as regards price and visibility.

I remember the first time I was on a panel at a US convention when the moderator blithely announced, ‘I’ll ask the panel to introduce themselves and plug their latest books.’ Everyone in the room stiffened, sitting up straighter on their chairs. Me with shock at this challenge to my Traditional British Reserve. The audience with keen anticipation, clearly eager to hear about new books and authors new to them. My fellow writers by way of preparation to inform potential customers about their work in a friendly and professional fashion, standing their books up on the table to show cover art etc.

Why should an author feel awkward or embarrassed about offering such information? But at UK conventions I so often see writers barely making mention of their own work, brutally self-deprecating if they do – and then I hear con-goers afterwards asking each other for more information on a panel member’s titles, where that writer’s work sits in the genre, trying to work out if someone whose contribution they’ve appreciated in that discussion is also likely to write books to their taste. If such information’s available in the programme, all well and good, but all too often it isn’t. How does such reticence encourage that broader conversation that keeps a genre vibrant and evolving?

When considering hostility to self-promotion, I think there’s a clue in that word ‘pimpage’, which grates on me like fingernails on slate whenever I hear it. I don’t care if it’s being used ironically, post-modernly, self-deprecatingly or whatever other justification might be offered. Writers are not pimps and our books are not whores. We are not sleazy money-grubbers demanding cash for something that decent, clean-living people otherwise exchange for free. We are offering our work-product and inviting the reader to purchase it, to give us a return on our endeavour. How is this different from any other commercial transaction, where goods and services are exchanged for a fair price?

Ah but TS Eliot had to work in a bank, we are told. We read infuriating articles like a recent one in The Guardian insisting that ‘real writers’ don’t seek monetary reward for their art. We see the enduring literary snobbery that insists a commercial best seller must self-evidently be devoid of true merit precisely because such popular appeal can only be meretricious (from the Latin, meretrix, a whore). Such snobbery then promptly inverts itself, insisting a ‘challenging’ or ‘important’ novel must be lauded, even if it’s sold under a thousand copies. Presumably because only the clever people can understand it. Sorry, but I cannot read these self-selecting, self-regarding critics without wondering if they’ve ever heard the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Such people have clearly never studied basic logic. A best-seller can indeed be devoid of literary merit. A chair can have four legs. A best-seller need not be devoid of merit. Something with four legs need not be a chair. It can be a racehorse. With all respect to Dr Johnson, I don’t know a single author who writes only for money. This is not in the least the same as saying we cannot justifiably expect for a fair reward for our writing.

To return to the subject at hand. Ultimately every reader and writer will find the level of self-promotion that they’re comfortable with. I have decided that am not going to be discouraged from offering useful information to potential readers, such as links to reviews online or a brief introduction to my work if I’m on a panel discussion. I see nothing wrong in letting people know that one of my books is eligible for consideration for an award. What readers choose to do with that information is then up to them.

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