Lemonade in a Desert
I’ve often joked to friends that I couldn’t sell lemonade in a desert. There’s a lot of truth to that statement. I always came in close to last place in the door-to-door Girl Scout cookie sales, and the difference between my numbers and those lower than me was that I actually put effort into selling those Thin Mints and Shortbreads. And don’t get me started on the summer jobs where I attempted to sell costume jewelry that I’d never wear myself or the toys I ended up playing with rather than peddling.
Obviously, the retail sales industry — a mainstay of both my parents’ families — was not for me. However, I didn’t realize when I decided to become a published author of fiction that I would have to demonstrate sales chops as well as writing chops. I’d have to learn the skills of self-promotion!
Well, I didn’t. Or at least not well. If someone were to grade me, taking into account the trend toward grade inflation at all levels, I’d be in the C+/B- range. I have a blog that gets a decent amount of traffic, mostly from people looking for travel advice to Portugal. (Sorry, Poland, you’re getting no traction…yet.) The Instagram account I opened in 2013 to display my creative Lego builds and mediocre Lego photography turned out to be a major source of support for my 2013 novel Rogue, as it introduced that novel to the middle school boys who were the biggest fans of both my Lego work and Rogue — despite the fact that the novel’s protagonist is a girl. As a result of their support — a total accident — Rogue earned back its advance and had solid sales until it went out of print in 2017.
I always had trouble mastering Twitter, which reminded me of the school cafeteria where I frequently ate alone, but I did build a base of support in the years between publications when translated picture books were my tenuous foothold in the industry, and it served me well last year when I had four books out. Still, I struggled with the question of self-promotion because I didn’t want to appear boastful when I received my first starred reviews ever for a book that was all mine, but I also felt I was shortchanging my agent and publishing teams if I kept the news to myself. I remembered all the times I liked other authors’ posts when they crowed about their reviews and end-of-year lists while my reviews ranged from middling to harsh to nonexistent and bad reviews or no reviews tend to disqualify books for lists. Like teenage me hearing about parties I wasn’t invited to, I wanted what my author colleagues had while resenting them for what I perceived as bragging about it.
With the post-Elon Musk collapse of social media — and I too have cut back on what is now known as X because of his arrogant and biased leadership — it’s become easier to unplug. I have more time to pick up paid editorial work, but I also worry that I’m shortchanging my 2023 publisher by not announcing the books, reviews, and end-of-year lists far and wide. Of course, any news will appear on this blog, linked to Facebook. I’ve also opened an account on Bluesky, but so far it feels like I’m once again sitting by myself in the cafeteria, and the cafeteria itself is a bit empty as well.
I recently read a thread from author Claribel Ortega (on Threads but reposted on Instagram) about the necessity of a successful social media presence for different kinds of authors — debut, mid-career, and nonfiction. While nonfiction requires a platform (people want to know that you’re an expert), and mid-career authors who are particularly inept, causing their sales to lag below expectations, can suffer (though it’s hard to tell why a book’s sales tank and weak self-promotion is only one possible cause), a debut fiction author need not worry about low following and engagement. Of course, that begs the question of how long a new author will get a pass, how much help they’ll receive to establish a presence, and what the impact of social media’s collapse and fragmentation will be for everyone.
The best advice I’ve heard is to focus on whatever promotion you do best, and above all, write the next book. My first love is this blog, which has sometimes been a mixed bag for promotion because I have been known to share my opinions regardless of what others think. But I do that in my books, too! I keep going back to the advice of my autistic mentor Dr. Temple Grandin, who says, “When you’re a weird geek, you’ve got to learn to sell your work.” For me that means, writing the best book I can, and trusting that the rest of it will fall into place.