Shortly after its release a few years ago, a British literary agent stumbled upon my first book by coincidence and sent me an email, offering to represent me. Having had considerable scars on my then thin writer’s skin from previous dealings with press editors, agents and publishers; I decided to jump at the chance and replied, accepting the agent’s proposal and answering a question she’d included at the bottom about my social media activity and the number of followers I had on Facebook and Twitter. I did have a Facebook account, I wrote, but only used it for searching purposes. As for the other networks; I didn’t exist and wasn’t much interested in the prospect. I never heard back from her.
To revive friendships from bygone school and university years and get swamped with family photos and cheesy quotes would literally bore me to death. Facebook was—and still is—out of the question for me. Exploring the hitherto terra incognita of Twitter, on the other hand, didn’t seem so obnoxious, so I decided to give it a shot. My timeline was immediately packed with posts about the writers I’d followed: their latest interviews, dozens of retweeted citations along with photos of readers holding their books in their hands or next to their thrilled faces. Naïve hopes of having a decent exchange with my favorite authors crashed, there was hardly anything to exchange. Favorite (like) or retweet! That’s that… The British agent, it dawned on me, wanted to know my value in the stock market of social media. Obviously, I was worthless.
Putting up with the hectic world of social media is not the sole challenge contemporary authors are facing. We are expected—thanks to sweeping American values like speaking out, standing out, and everything out—to master performance art and entertain an audience not only through our written work, but also by means of public talks and appearances. Over the past few years, I have received several links to TEDx talks by writers of different genres and nationalities. Many of the videos, I must say, were interesting; well balanced meals of humor and slight sadness, always ending on an optimistic note to attract customers to buy the displayed product aka the author’s persona, brand, image, etc. The shows often left me thinking: Had the ritual prevailed a century ago, reclusive writers the likes of Marcel Proust would have definitely been deemed too depressing, and thus unsellable.
Some authors, however, proved to be extremely charming on stage and their careers shifted to motivational speaking. And writing, on the side. They sell their books (CDs and DVDs) at the venues the way pop stars sell t-shirts and caps on concert nights. After her TEDx talk went viral, Palestinian writer Suad Amiry decided to pursue a long curbed passion for acting and appeared in a film or two. I think that’s wonderful, although not all writers are equally gifted. For those of us who lack stage facility but still have to follow market rules or risk being abandoned, the problem can be overcome by yet another American invention: Toastmasters Clubs, where people from all walks of life receive systematic training for building public speaking muscles—and nerves. How cool is that?
Now don’t get me wrong! I’m not averse to verbal communication between writers and readers—unless pretentious, of course—and have myself addressed several gatherings. Surprisingly, and despite the fact that I don’t do mirror rehearsals beforehand, my talks have so far gone perfectly well. I don’t mind them, but do I enjoy doing it time and again? The answer is No. Having practiced architectural design and painting prior to writing, it often puzzles me how many people in the publishing arena are convinced that books cannot speak for themselves the way paintings, buildings, even musical pieces can.
It would be naïve, though, to overlook the looming threat to the industry—yes, I’m aware that it is, at the end of the day, an industry. Many stores have been shutting down, while the remaining ones are selling electronic devices, stationary, toys, and books—only enough shelves to keep the title. Creative survival skills are unquestionably overdue, but it’s unfair to hold writers responsible for the current depressed market and expect them to be capable of fixing everything on their own. We don’t have a magic wand.
If I were to maintain an active presence on social media, spend my nights on Twitter—given the time difference between New Zealand and the rest of the world—trying to impress prospective readers at prime sharing time, if I were to show up on every event, introducing myself to strangers, showering them with my carefully designed business cards and engaging in shallow discussions, at the end of which I would shamelessly ask people to “like” me on Facebook, rate my books on Goodreads or write flattering reviews on Amazon; if I were to consume myself in the aforementioned endeavors to publicize my name and image, what will there remain of my energy, let alone creativity to invest in writing? Most importantly, if I were to become a pragmatic salesman, would I still be able to recognize the honest author I aspired to be when I started writing?