Exposure vs. Overexposure: Thoughts on Self-Promotion

This morning, I read an essay -- an "open letter to Cormac McCarthy" by Don Graham of Texas Monthly magazine -- that made me roll my eyes. In it, Graham chastizes iconic author Cormac McCarthy (whose work I love, despite the copious bloodshed) for making the transition from invisible recluse to real-and-public person. Basically, Graham prefers his literary idols to remain mute and hidden, devoted purely to their art rather than the pursuit of celebrity (or even book sales.)

Since lately, I've been scheduling book signings and visiting book clubs that have read my most recent release and since I've cut my authorly teeth on the message "Promote! Promote! Promote!" (ad nauseum), Graham's preference for keeping his favorite author on a pedestal at first annoyed and then perplexed me. But after thinking about it for a while, I finally got it. And I understood as well that even for working-stiff authors of popular fiction, there's a fine line between exposure and over-exposure.

To my mind, exposure's a good thing when the author respects his/her audience. I like meeting with "real readers" because I enjoy getting to know the people and hearing about their reading tastes. When they're curious, as they often are, I chat with them about the writing process and the world of publishing. I happily share advice for their creative writer nephew or neighbor or spouse when asked (as I almost invariably am, since everyone on the planet apparently knows an aspiring novelist). I learn as much from these meetings as anyone, and I try to use that education to build better future books. I write about my writing to give interested readers background tidbits and because it helps me understand my own process more clearly. Sure, I want to sell more copies. That's what allows me to keep writing. But I never forget that readers can smell someone talking down to them a mile off.

While I don't feel Cormac McCarthy's guilty of this sin, I've seen over-exposure happen when an author loses sight of the needs of the reader. Hucksterism or the pursuit of fame takes root and writers become obnoxiously hyper-competitive. At times, authors can get so caught up in "moving product," they bludgeon potential "pigeons" with their message. They make repeated "drive-by" postings on bulletin boards or listserves or other people's blogs without bothering to try to get to know the other participants. Their every communication is a in-your-face sound byte of self-promotion. They ignore or put down the achievements of other authors in an attempt to elevate themselves, and they only show up for events within the writing community where they are personally being honored. They come off as self-absorbed and selfish. Because they often are.

So how do you like your authors? Friendly and approachable? Omnipresent? Reclusive? Does it matter to you? And to your taste, what types of self-promotional behavior cross the line?


Joe Cottonwood said…
Colleen, I like to join the conversation on blogs by posting comments. It's not about self-promotion, but as an author I sometimes can best illustrate my point by mentioning my own work. Then on re-reading the comment, I cringe because it sounds like blatant self-promotion. You can't win this game. More and more, I try to avoid mentioning my own work. But I do want to participate. What I love about blogs is the opportunity to communicate with thoughtful people all over the world. And now, oops, I just self-promoted again. See what I mean?
Hey, it took me three clicks to even get to a mention of your books, so I certainly don't count you as a member of the obnoxious camp. And I don't think it's bad to mention our own work. As with a lot of things, it's a matter of "how" a person says it more than what is said.

But it's a slippery slope, isn't it?

Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

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