Writers as “Institutions”

A lot of stuff is written about how to “Market Yourself” as a writer.  How to get your Big Platform, how to make your presence known, and all that.  It’s generally all put forth by people who maintain it’s the new key or new rule, that both readers and publishers expect you to be building your Big Platform constantly.  It’s implied with much certainty that you not only can, but must start with this construction project, almost before you’ve even written anything.  The key to survival as a writer is, essentially, to go into the advertising business.  You are not just a writer, but a marketer.

The problems with this approach are both practical and psychological.  The practical limitation is mostly time: it takes time to get your virtual MBA in marketing.  To learn everything you need to know about “building your brand,” which is a very complicated process.  (Consider how many high-paid consultants it takes to develop and maintain the “Sarah Palin Brand” or the “Conan O’Brien Brand.”  What?  You thought these people are just “being themselves?”)  There are even academic researchers on brand construction.

So if you’re a writer, you got time for all that?

And your publisher won’t provide the expertise you are needing.  For one thing, if you don’t have a “brand,” they all say, you won’t have that publisher.  For another, “experts” in this, like in all fields, are mostly young barely past amateur status people — if you actually are successful enough to be able to afford to pay for topnotch expertise in brand development and advertising, you don’t need it.

The bigger limitation is psychological.  Most serious, worthwhile writers are mainly immersed in their work.  They are introverts — how else does a person develop that interesting “inner life” that makes a writer, unless they spend most of their time immersed in that interior space?  Generally, writers are people who don’t enjoy jumping up on stage to attract the spotlights.  They don’t relish “markeing themselves.”  It seems phoney, even dishonest.  So their hearts won’t be in it, they won’t follow through… and the real danger: they’ll therefore conclude, based on all this “expert” nonsense, that maybe they “aren’t cut out to be a writer.”

In the field of fiction, good agents and others often debunk this stuff.  For instance, Maass, in his books on becoming a break-out writer, makes the point that what sells fiction isn’t all the marketing, but well-written fiction.  People pass the news of great books around to each other; if your book is interesting to enough people, your reputation will spread.  Over time, do more and more good stuff and people will catch on.

When I think of writers I admire and spend money to read, I don’t ever think of their “marketing.”  What happens is something more subtle and more profound.  Essentially, a good writer seems to me to be something like an “institution.”  Meaning, I see them as working in a certain way, doing a certain project — even if it’s one book — and find that particular project to be interesting to me.  It’s their unique world, whether it’s Isaac Asimov’s “prolificity” of interests, or Alan Furst’s World War II spy noir books, or Rowling with her Harry Potter universe.

Whatever it is, it’s a sense that the author is the “go to” person for their particular “stuff.”  Just as, in professional psychology practice, a therapist learns that in their community of colleagues, there are “go to” persons to ask about ethics questions, or someone who really knows about attention deficit disorder, or someone who knows how to get their insurance claims reimbursed.  These folks take on the character of local “institutions.”  They “stand for” something, meaning simply that you know that they are really into this stuff, and you can trust them to know about it, or at least can predict what they’ll be able to tell you.

A bit less work on “marketing” and a bit more on developing what, in an earlier time, might have just been called a writer’s “integrity,” meaning not just honesty but wholeness, solidity, is what’s needed.  It’s hard to develop that inner world of riches if you spend much energy getting famous for being famous.


1 Comment

Filed under Writing, Writing profession

One response to “Writers as “Institutions”

  1. As a career consultant, I’ve probably done my share of blathering on about “brand” and “platform.” But as a writer, your post resonates with me, completely. Please keep posting!

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