Why “Self-Promotion” Is Bullshit

The first time I ever heard the hyphenated word “self-promotion” uttered as something writers do, I was an MFA student. Seemingly every editor, author, or agent who spoke on a panel about “the publishing industry” came to tell us amateurs we had to build a platform and learn self-promotion. The work doesn’t stop when you sign your book contract, they said. The book isn’t going to sell itself; you have to.

As a debut author with an essay collection published through a small independent press, I understand how important it is for writers to participate in promoting their book. What made me wince 10 years ago, when the writing world was new to me, and what bothers me now, as a rookie author, is the continued proliferation of the word self-promotion and its associated misconceptions.

Book-tour angst is real. Maybe you saw the recent essay former Congressman Steve Israel penned for The New York Times, “Why a Book Tour Is More Brutal Than a Political Campaign,” where he wonders why “rejection in politics rolled off my back while even one person’s rejection of my book sticks in my craw?” He says, “sitting behind a pile of books at an Authors Night, watching people pick up your book as if it’s a piece of spongy fruit at the market, is sheer torture.”

What if the years we spent laboring over a manuscript in private become a product the public never finds out about, or worse, discovers and ignores? It seems most authors have a self-effacing story to share about poorly attended readings, like the one Tom McAllister opens with in  “Who Will Buy Your Book?”

It’d be disingenuous of me to pretend that rejections to requests for readings and reviews don’t sting. Of course they do. But my beef with self-promotion’s existence in publishing is the word’s power to conflate the work and the person who wrote it. Writers are not politicians whose entire curriculum vitae are to be endorsed or condemned. We’re not campaigning to sell ourselves during an election of literary minded voters. We’re selling our work.

What writers do in the necessary stage of discussing their books
online and at in-person events is not an ego-driven series of acts trying to
draw attention to the self, but rather an extension of the private labor that
has become public.

If the writing is any good, the author always had the audience in mind. It’s always been for the reader, and trying to engage people who could be interested in reading your book is a continuation of the act of writing for them. It’s a gift to the reader. The writers are not promoting themselves; they are sharing their gift, presenting it to potential recipients, placing it before them and saying, here, open it.

Maybe self-promotion is such an
uncomfortable phrase for many writers because of its associations to
self-absorption, self-adulation, self-righteousness, self-aggrandizement,
self-congratulations, self-interests, selfishness, and so on. Self-promotion is laden with the
solipsistic ugliness of narcissism, of navel-gazing.

I’ve heard self-promotion uttered at the writing conferences I’ve attended the past few summers. I’ve seen, on occasion, writers qualify a post on social media with “Sorry for the self-promo, but…” We covet including more applicable words in our bios such as appeared, awarded, award-winning, published, named, included, longlisted, etc. So how did such an anti-literary term like self-promotion bully its way past the diction police and into our lexicon?

If we consider the word’s origins we can glean an even better understanding of our discomfort with self-promotion: Merriam-Webster lists its first known use as 1653, from Edmund Hall’s He apostasia ho Antichristos: “He exalts himself and magnifies himself..self-promotion is his end, that he may be mighty in the eyes of the world; he makes himself god.” While it’s fair to concede our egos can become knotted around sales, reviews, or awards, Hall communicates the precise misconception self-promotion expresses—the idea that a writer is attempting to “exalt” themselves “in the eyes of the world,” rather than the truth of authorial promotion which is to publicize the book and invite engagement.

On the website belonging to the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, I learned “An early form of self-promotion can be found in Gothic stained glass windows. Guilds, organizations formed to maintain a trade standard and protect their interests, donated windows to churches that included likenesses of themselves engaged in their craft.”  Perhaps you could argue that’s one reason readers want to meet authors: to see and hear, in person, a likeness to the voice telling the story. But another early example the site lists is closer to how social networks can function for writers, specifically related to publicizing their events: “In the 17th century, visiting cards were used by European aristocracy and royalty to announce the impending arrival to their hosts’ home.”

I’m more comfortable with the word sharing. That’s what we’re doing. We share updates about our work and where we will be physically sharing it, as well as sharing ourselves in the way we read, answer questions, and talk to book buyers when we sign their copies.

Engagement is not selfishness, but
rather a giving away of the self, an offering—take it or leave it. Scroll past
the picture on Instagram, buy the book, don’t go to the reading—whatever. It’s
all happening whether you’re into it or not, but in case you are, here’s where
I’ll be.

“I know this may sound strange, but I don’t think of it as ‘self-promotion.’ I’m talking about my work. This is what I do. I love what I do, and I’m going to share that because it’s my life,” says Sophfronia Scott, who’s had three books come out in the past year. “I write,” she continued “but if I want my writing to be read I have to tell people what it is and where it is.”

On whether or not writers can post too much
about their work on social media, Scott told me, “Those who matter don’t mind,
and those who mind don’t matter. The people who care about you want to know
what you’re doing. The readers you reach will want to read your work. The ones
who complain probably don’t read your work and most likely never will. So, what
is the loss there?” 

Promote your book. Share your work
and what you’re comfortable sharing of yourself with your potential readers,
but please, let’s abolish that terribly ill-fitting word: self-promotion. So
much of what is good about the literary community is striving toward
inclusivity, but this word doesn’t belong.

While the avatars we post with and the public face we wear in front of audiences is a role some writers are more comfortable with than others, the real question, at least for this debut author, is this: After we’ve booked our readings and sent out review copies, how can we find peace existing in the chasm between promoting our work and letting the book live in the marketplace? Most writers can’t lean on name recognition and a marketing team. Even the ones who can would probably eagerly tell me they have to hustle, too. At some point—at least, one can hope—a book eventually develops its own efficacy, leaves the warehouse and finds other people’s hands, however many that becomes. If the writing is any good, the audience has already been in mind the whole time—the author is just now appearing to greet them.