The World of Marketing #15: The Author's Role
It’s interesting that there’s an apparent fundamental dichotomy beneath the surface in the life of writers.
Throughout their fiction, writers are striving to make themselves ‘invisible’: good writing is, by its nature, meant to be unseen. Usually, any hint of a author’s presence within the text throws the reader out of the story, unless the author really knows what he or she is doing (like John Fowles in his book The French Lieutenant’s Woman, who inserts himself into his own novel just before the end and winds his watch back twenty minutes, enabling a different ending to the story to take place). It can be mind-numbingly difficult to remove one’s authorial voice from a piece, sentence by sentence.
Once a book is completed, though, it seems that the opposite is required of writers: they must make themselves as visible as possible, appearing at book signings, in interviews, on social media, through ‘author platforms’, constantly seeking the attention of others through a created persona. For the large majority of writers, many of whom are introverted personalities, this feels worse than the first task - trying to be visible can be harder and more uncomfortable than trying to be invisible.
If only we had Bilbo Baggins’ magic ring, and were able to appear and disappear as we pleased.
It’s probably true to say that we learn to be invisible as writers by first becoming more visible. What does that mean? I mean that we learn how to ‘disappear’ as authors only when we have written so much, delved into ourselves to such a degree, spoken our innermost thoughts to such a level that we generate a world which has its own ‘inner consistency of reality’, as Tolkien put it. He was talking about fantasy, and high fantasy in particular, but what he describes applies to any form of fiction: we must create a world which seems so real to the reader that he or she becomes lost in it and forgets that it is actually someone’s creation. That level of creativity doesn’t tend to happen just by sitting down and penning a first draft from scratch - it tends to take draft after draft, and even book after book, before an author’s work stands proudly next to him or her, almost as an independent being.
A work of fiction is like a statue. It is carved piece by tiny piece from a shapeless block of stone. If we don’t carve enough, the stone remains shapeless or at best a poor parody of something; we have to carve and chip and brush and sand and smooth until the thing can stand alone, until a reader, walking around it, recognises it as a separate thing and fails to see the sculptor.
What about the next bit - the ‘being visible’ bit, once the statue is finished? To some degree, if a work has achieved a ‘stand alone’ independence, the author’s role in marketing it is already reduced. Remember, by far the greatest volume of books, even if they were bestsellers, were sold prior to the internet, prior to author platforms, prior to any need for the author to make any appearance at all. Which of us read a book, particularly in childhood, because we had seen its author appear at a conference, or on TV or radio, or read an article featuring him or her? Very few, I would think. We read and like books because they are independent entities. Yes, they require an author to make them, but just as the author needs to keep a low profile in the text, so can he or she remain ‘behind the scenes’ afterwards - if the book is good enough.
Today’s high pressure marketing suggests otherwise. It suggests that, due to ‘marketplace saturation’, an author needs to emerge into the spotlight and ‘sell’ his or her work ceaselessly to the public. This is partly because the technology now exists for him or her to do so - social media, clickable ads, and the fast-paced world of modern communication systems seem to demand that an author be known and seen all over the place as part of the package of the book. But a really good book will gain a readership even when its author is unknown. In fact, to some extent some marketers are using authors’ personas as selling tools to try to make up for demerits in the quality of the books themselves.
The focus should be on the work. Find one’s voice; create one’s world; reach the point at which a story stands on its own two feet. It sounds simple, and it is, relatively speaking, though it can take time and it definitely takes work.
If it helps, so little is known about the professed greatest writer in the world, William Shakespeare, that some people think he didn’t exist and that his work was written by a committee of others.
Take heart; find your voice; write.