Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Philistines on Their Platforms

In my college Latin class I was once called on to translate a phrase which I rendered (literally) as, "The names of the stupid we see written on the walls." Better understood and less literal as, "stupid people advertise."

The quip was made by some Roman wit who was, of course, talking about the graffiti of his day (not the artsy/protest Banksy stuff but the "Lucius Septimus was here" type). I have forgotten my Latin words but I not the idea, and it has been recurring to me often lately as I consider the uses now being made of social media and the internet by the tumbling and roiling publishing industry.

Even if you have not been making a special study of what's going on with publishing, as I have recently had to do, no one who reads could avoid some sense of how it's all different now. What you may not have realized is that it goes beyond the shake-up of e-books. Those seem to everybody - at least everybody not invested in the old model - to be a great development. Beyond e-books, however, there are many different models for self-publishing - print on demand, hybrid deals where a literary agency and a writer team up and share the risks and rewards and other schemes for publishing that are popping up like mushrooms.

I think all of this is really great for the writing and the reading public. Let a thousand flowers bloom, and all of that. There is, however, at least one appalling consequence: the requirement that writers will build and maintain "a platform" from which they will promote their "brand" at every opportunity.

Like so much marketing, you may not even have realized that it is being done to you, but it is and it seems that all writers, even the best known, are being required to develop a commoditized version of themselves for the internet. It's like a command has gone forth, one especially hard on all those who can publish a book on their own but who who are also left to market it alone: leave no social network un-infiltrated.

I am not talking here about the connections that people have been making for years now based on common interests, or about those with an honest penchant for twittering or blogging. You know who you are - you write because you have something to say or someone you want to talk to and you don't expect to get paid. I am also not talking about websites created for fans who want a place to to read more about a book or to contact its writer or even order something. That's simply good service and a natural outgrowth of the admiration of readers. I am talking about calculated, venal, self-promotion, that turns the almost every kind of contact made possible by the internet into one with an agenda that's more tawdry than secret.

Full Disclosure

Of course I have been considering all this because I have a manuscript on offer. I sent it around to 15 or 20 agents this spring and got "no thanks" or silence from all of them. I would have preferred a different result, of course, but I was prepared for a lot of rejection and it was useful by way of education. I am going to revise, then I'll send it out for another round. If it doesn't get picked up by an agent and go the way of a traditional book, I will self-publish it one day. (More on that below). It was also useful because it was in this process that I learned about what's happening in the publishing business today - including this notion of "platform."

Babe in the woods that I was, the first mention I heard of it was in this video of an interview by a literary agent with a best-selling author and "lifecoach" about the author's great and successful platform building. (Don't watch it now - it's long, but I hope you will watch it later and let me know what you thought). The agent, who has a nice website and made a lot of sense generally (or so I thought at the time), urged hopeful authors to emulate the lifecoach by building up as large an internet following as possible. I recognized the author as a tacky huckster but the agent was clearly bright and it sounded like good advice. So, (and this feels like a confession) I went out immediately and started a twitter account - the beginning of my own platform.(This little blog hardly counts for what are probably obvious reasons). (Also, full disclosure - this agent subsequently rejected my book).

After two months on Twitter, my platform is no more than a spar from a broken oar and I won't be making any directed efforts to build it up. There is good in Twitter. It has been fun to follow some of my favorite writers, (Neil Gaiman is a good Twitterer) and other interesting or amusing people. The sad part is all the grasping for attention that underlies so much of what goes on there. The followers I have picked up are a few friends and a handful of voracious platform builders. One of my followers (whom I dutifully followed) tweets again and again about his "five-star reviews" on Amazon for his self-published e-memoir. (Of course, I wouldn't touch that with a barge pole, which gives you an idea of how effective this kind of marketing effort is). My heart went out to him recently though, when he admitted that promoting his book had turned out to be more work than writing it had been. Poor thing.

When authors were vetted and cared for by agents and publishing houses in those pre-internet days, a writer could maintain a gentlemanly distance from the smear of commerce. No more. Even the famous seem expected to pitch in and sell books. For the self-published, their every public internet move is often calculated to promote themselves and their products. They are like awful guests at a cocktail party pursuing the rest of us with their business cards, slipping them into pockets and comment boxes ("here's a link to my YA mystery thriller") at every opportunity.

I get it that book publishing has ever been a commercial enterprise and someone has always had to shill for books if anyone (including the writer) was going to make a living. I can practically hear the agents and editors, "It's a marketplace. I have a mortgage to pay. If you don't like that you can go sit on your pile of unsold books under your tree and read The Atlantic.

But a platform is a crass sort of place to occupy at best and a soul destroying one at worst. When I read about a writer talking about herself as a "brand," and being celebrated for it, I feel like we must be nearing the end of days. (I found these links via Twitter BTW).

I read the other day that John Milton made a total of ten pounds for the publication of Paradise Lost. How many pounds would it have taken to get him to write his name on the walls or to go out on a marketing platform?

See you around the Internet. I promise not to try to sell you anything. Well, not to try very hard at least.