Friday, January 18, 2008

Up Close & Personal

from Jacqueline

Patty’s recent post about the writer having to be a bit of a techie struck a chord with some of our readers at Naked Authors. I was pondering this business of how many jobs a writer really has, when, lo and behold, I received an email from the hard-working publicist who is organizing my book tour and rooting out what they call “media opportunities.” She was after something personal.

With so many books coming out each week, if you hadn’t realized this before, increasingly, it’s not your book, your hard work, that the media is interested in, no, it’s YOU. And if you want the media to notice, your book needs a hook that’s personal to you – something, anything. In my experience, most of the writers I meet use their background in some way, so we can all hold a conversation and draw some personal threads back to the story to provide a hook for the press release.

However, when it came to AN INCOMPLETE REVENGE, published in a few weeks, fresh blood was needed to pitch the book. They’d done the story of my grandfather and the Great War, of the daydreaming that led to my first novel, and they’d done the story about the accident that gave me time write that novel ... blah, blah, blah. But they needed more, something new, some little nugget to go out with. I can understand that, I’ve been in sales, marketing and PR. And I did have a story. A really quite inspiring family story that I drew upon to write this book. But it wasn’t my story. It was my parents’ story, and I wasn’t comfortable about sharing it, because sometimes, if you give an inch, a mile is taken.

A few years ago, someone in the publishing industry told me that, increasingly, a book is signed based not only upon the quality of the writing, but on the author’s ability and willingness to take a full and complete part in promotion. I wondered what might happen if you’d just written the great American novel, but had no teeth, a hunch back and hated flying – would you be rejected based on your “ability” to undertake promotion?

I’ve always worked hard when it comes to the book tours etc, because I consider myself so lucky to have been published, so blessed to be doing what I’m doing, fortunate that my publisher sends me out on tour. Even if it wears me out, that’s OK. However, one thing that makes me cringe, is when things get too personal. When people ask questions that are nothing to do with my book, but are to do with family, for example, or my personal history. It’s hard, because on the one hand, heck, I am so happy that people have turned up to hear me talk about my book, but on the other hand, I’ve had situations where I have wanted to run a mile. After one event the bookseller said to me, “I couldn’t believe people asked you such personal questions – I was shocked.”

Some of that comes with the territory of being from somewhere else (sorry, don’t mean to offend, and I’m sure this happens in other countries) because when you come from somewhere overseas, people tend to ask questions they wouldn’t dream of asking their neighbors. After all these years, it’s water off a duck’s back, and I’m good at deflection. But on the other hand, I wondered why it was happening. At one special event during my last book tour, I attended a dinner arranged for book groups from the bookstore in question. I wasn’t asked one question about my book or my work as a writer – it was all personal (“How many kids do you have?” seems to be a favorite and is one of the softer questions. I don’t have children so I sometimes feel like apologizing – “Ooops, sorry, forgot all about kids ...”)

I was talking to another writer about this and she suggested that it was because I had told stories about my grandfather, and in leaving the door ajar to details of my family, my history, people wanted that thing wrenched wide open. Hmmmm. Heck, I’m only little old me, a writer, I mean, it’s not as if I’m – heaven forbid – Paris Hilton! Mind you, I concede, here at Naked Authors, we’ve all shared personal stories at one time or another – does that mean we’re fair game?

So when I received the request to divulge some of the personal inspirations behind a certain group of characters in my novel, I was on the fence. What do I do? Help the publisher pitch the book and leave the door open and without a guard? Or do I just roll out the usual details and keep my own counsel?

As it happened, I figured I could handle the personal questions – I’m a grown up, I can deal with it, even though I do feel those boundaries tweaked at times. But it wasn’t just my story. So, I gave the publicist the potted version – and I should add, we’re not talking about any big skeletons in the cupboard here, nothing juicy, just some history that’s a bit different, and might be misconstrued. Then I told her she couldn’t use a thing until I’d asked my parents if they minded. “Sure,” said my mum. “Your father and I don’t mind at all.”

Yet it all begs the question: How much of a public person do you need to be to sell a book? Even though I might share family stories here in my Naked Authors posts, I’m really quite a private person. In a way it all comes down to personal comfort. I’ve become used to the bookstore appearances and I love meeting the people who enjoy my books enough to buy them, and the booksellers who value them enough to stock them – it’s a privileged position to be in. Once upon a time I would shake in my boots and the room would spin at the thought talking to a crowd. However, as well as being a techie, per Patty’s post, how much of a marketing whiz does the writer have to be? Jane Austen would probably roll in her grave – but I bet she’d write a great novel about it all.

PS: My friend and writing mentor, Barbara Abercrombie wrote about being a "marketing whore" (her words, not mine!) on her blog recently:

Yep, it goes with the territory - along with working on your craft - if you want to keep being a published writer.


  1. Jackie,
    I don't mind focusing on personal info that influences the books, like past investigations and things of that nature but I try to keep alot of other things "hazy".

    I specifically don't talk about advances, police salaries or sales. One reason is I was raised not to ask personal questions about money. It just doesn't feel right. My agent handles the business end of things. I try to steer clear of it. I know that's counter to some author's advice but it has worked for me.

    Good luck on the tour. I know our paths cross at the Virgina Book Festival. Maybe somewhere else too.


  2. from Jacqueline

    Jim, You're right, the info that inspires or influences the books is fair game, and it's interesting to the reader - however, it's when sharing that info gives rise to questions (for example) about matters that you don't want in the public arena, for whatever reason, that can be a challenge. I think we can all handle those situations - as you say, you can be "hazy" - but it's strange when it happens. You feel your boundary about to be breached.

    Virginia comes right at the end of my tour, from there it's Williamsburg and then to London to see my folks!

  3. from Jacqueline

    And just in case anyone wonders, I know Williamsburg is in Virginia - I was referring to the Virginia Book Festival when I said "Virginia." Phew!

  4. See, Jackie, you have touched on what has me concerned about making a sale--not that I'm a hunchback, of course. Yet for me right now, that's very much putting the cart in front of the horse.

  5. I prefer personal grilling to the hoary old question: "Where do you get your ideas?" (Answer: I steal them).

    Absolutely true story. Here are the first 3 questions I got at a (5 hour!) Hadassah Luncheon in Fort Lauderdale. (Jim Born knows what I'm talking about).

    1. So, are you married?

    2. What's with all those dirty words?

    3. You making any money at this?

  6. I don't have any trouble talking about myself. The problem is getting me to shut up.

    Like Jim, though, I do tend to draw the line at discussing money. It's part of my raising as well.

  7. from Jacqueline

    Oh, yes, I often get the "And you can make a living at this?"

    No comment ...

  8. As a reader of several of the "Naked Truth Troop" my first question (sorry mine didn't make Paul's top three) would be "when is your next book coming out?" I will often check an author's web site after finishing a book to find out if there is anything else currently in the works. If so I want to make a note to be sure I don't miss it.

    Thanks to all of you in the Troop for a fascinating blog.

    By the way is it just me or does everyone triple check their grammar on a writers blog?

  9. Thanks, Steve, for your comment - glad you like what we have to say here. And I never mind telling people when my next book is coming out: February 18th!

    I am sure we all hit the spell-check, but that's all I have time to check - I'm usually writing my post on a Friday morning with the dog looking at me as if she hasn't been taken for a walk in months.

  10. I once had a reporter get annoyed with me because I wouldn't tell her my age.

    Me: "Why is it important?"
    Reporter: "It just makes a more interesting story."
    Me: "Why is that?"
    Reporter: "OH NEVER MIND!"

    I'm with Jim and Dusty. I was taught that it was vulgar to ask about money. Of course, that was then. Almost nothing is considered vulgar anymore. Good luck on the tour!

  11. I guess I pretty much talk about everything. Thankfully, most of the time the truth is so outlandish that people think I'm kidding.

  12. The first time I heard authors complaining about "personal questions" was at a workshop I attended at the Edinburgh International Book Festival a few years ago. The examples that these authors gave made me laugh, as do some of the examples given here.
    I am a junior high school teacher -- personal questions have to be truly personal before we even flinch. Honestly, questions about my marital status and income wouldn't even make me notice.
    At the moment I'm still a wannabe author, but if the public ever takes notice of me, they'll have to dig deep before they get to what I consider "personal."

  13. Just one thought that struck me on the issue of questions that are "too personal".

    Umm...aren't you guys the Naked Authors, with all that implies? :D

    Seems to me like some are desperately holding on to at least a fig leaf..."nudge, nudge".

  14. Jackie, A very timely post. Sadly, our tell-all culture is celebrity driven, which makes it hard for serious writers and authors to focus solely on our craft. Agents and publishers seem to want larger-than-life authors with showy platforms and talk-show personalities -- and the writing itself is often secondary. It used to be a real coup just getting your book published. Now, it doesn't seem to mean much unless you get on Oprah. To sell books, you often have to sell yourself. I believe this partly explains why the reading public has come to expect so much more from the author than a good book discussion. I wish it weren't so, but it is.

  15. Cindy, you have hit the nail on the head - I think this is exactly what is happening. Thank you for putting it so well and succinctly.

    And Jeff, yes, we're the Naked Authors, but one likes to keep that towel within striking distance.