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The Weekly Blague

The Writer As Performer

The idea of the writer as performer is often a contradiction in terms. Writers, in general, are solitary, introverted people who are very good at sitting alone in a room and listening to the voices in their head. Getting up in front of a roomful of strangers and reading from a book can be a difficult, even painful thing to do. The skills required to write a good book, which can take years of sitting alone in that room, are not the same skills needed to give the compelling live performance that's often necessary to sell that book, or to get a publishing deal in the first place.

And yet, in the publishing industry, which is undergoing its most wrenching changes since the invention of the printing press, more emphasis is put on a writer’s ability to promote a book after its published than his ability to write the book. Which goes a long way towards explaining why so many lousy books are published.

Several years ago, before the age of social media, I attended a seminar on book promotion sponsored by the Authors Guild. A distinguished panel of PR people, book editors, and very successful writers shared their thoughts with an auditorium full of published authors, many of whom were accomplished in their own right. The head of PR at a major corporate publisher was the first person to speak, and the first thing she said was, “We turn down good books from people we think aren’t good-looking enough.”

You could feel the air go out of the room.

What astonished me was the simple naked truth of this statement. I’d suspected for some time that this, or something like it, was the case, but I’d never heard it expressed so baldly, by a person in a position of authority. And I’m sure a lot of my fellow authors felt exactly as I did: I don’t look like a movie star. I may as well hang it up now.

I thought about Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, one of the best-selling books of all time. Puzo, whom I discuss at length in Beaver Street, was, to put it bluntly, ugly, overweight, and hated going on TV. I wanted to ask this PR woman if she’d have passed on The Godfather because Puzo wasn’t good looking enough. But the answer was self-evident.

Later, a ghostwriter asked the panel a question about promoting ghostwritten books. “Baby,” came the answer from a famous advice columnist, “you’re too good looking to be a ghostwriter. You need to write your own book.”

What became clear by the end of this eye-opening evening was that there are three things publishers are looking for in an author:

1) Somebody who’s young, good looking, and comes across well on TV, i.e., a “celebrity.”
2) Somebody who has their own TV show, a syndicated newspaper column, or a website that gets several hundred thousand hits a day.
3) It helps to have written a book, but if the author has everything in numbers one and two, it’s not really necessary. That’s what ghostwriters are for.

I bring this up now because Beaver Street is being published in America this week, or so I’m told, and as I prepare to leave for St. Louis for the various launch events, the promotion angle is very much on my mind. I’m not young. I’m not beautiful. I’m not a trained performer. But I’ve written a good book, I’ve been doing this promotion thing for a dozen years, and I know, at the least, I give good interview. So, I’m just going to go out there and do the best I can.
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