On Getting Your Name Out There, Part 2: The Story That Sells the Story

For the first part of this series on authors, author sites and author blogging, go here first.

When approaching an author site, what I find least interesting is a sort of bland, safe, risk-free aesthetic, a headshot with links and the sense that I’ve been handed a corporate resume. It just looks like you didn’t try. Just because Apple assures you can do the site yourself doesn’t mean you should (unless you do know or have time to learn how to do these things). If you’re not interested in a web design sideline, set aside part of that advance and make yourself a site with a professional’s help. And with that person, make something that’s fun for you and your reader at the same time. What I want as a reader is to be, well, fascinated. And with fiction in particular, I don’t want to see the writer’s face first—I want to see something else. I believe that writers of fiction are people who are deeply uninterested in themselves and are much more interested in other people. I think readers of fiction are people anxious to be transported, taken away from the world they know. The best sites understand that yes, of course, something of the author’s personality is involved in making the sale, but they do not make it like a facile job ad or personal ad. Unless of course, it is somehow hilarious and satirical.

Some more of my favorite author sites, that I found instructive also:

I feel like the bonus website winner most recently is James Kaelan, featured on GalleyCat last week. GallyCat was looking at his corporately-sponsored book tour, and this is not only a perfect example of some of what I addressed last week, but a portrait of a new generation of modern author.

Background: James Kaelan debuted this summer with a novel in stories called We’re Getting On. He was a founder of the Flatmancrooked publishing house, who did publish him, and he writes criticism for The Millions. He’s also a rock climbing enthusiast and cyclist, and he cares a lot about saving the planet from pollution. When he approached Cannondale, Flip, Bellwether and other corporate sponsors about supporting his Zero Emission Book Tour, they signed on because the brand relationship made instant sense for them. And he soon found additional sponsors in the form of organic farms along the way too, who fed him and let him stay with them.

He also happens to have a giant chest tattoo that was featured prominently in his cover feature over at Poets & Writers. In any case, thanks to his sponsors, he had a well-publicized and funded tour that was completely idiosyncratic to him and that did attract the attention of a P&W cover.

The quote from him on Galleycat is instructive:

“I had the naive confidence that if the idea was good enough, we could pitch it to the right people and they would support it. I ended up being at least somewhat correct. Cannondale jumped right on it. [My publicist] Jessi Hector from Goldest Egg pitched them and they were like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a great idea’ and set up a meeting and gave us bikes … You should know InDesign and be able to put together a good pitch deck. More important than the actual aesthetics of the presentation is just have the idea. I talk a lot about adding narrative to narrative–the story that sells your story.”

Boldface mine. More than a few authors I know are disturbed at the way in which biographical criticism seems to have birthed a literary cult of personality, in which you are selling a personality or your life more than a novel. Which is to say, you could once believe that if you were successful, someday a museum would have a recreation of your bedroom or study, and now, to be successful, you feel you’re asked to be transparent about where you work and how, and also if you are a good person. There are ways around this, I think, or ways to handle it that don’t make you feel like inventing a time machine back to before the internet—the genie is not going back in the bottle. The important thing is to do something that is not completely humiliating and might even be fun. Which is what James did.James took a cause he believes in seriously—the reduction of carbon emissions, the saving of the planet—and made an elegant alignment between himself and the cause, all the way down to the book itself. On his site you can purchase copies that are made from both recycled paper and seed-paper—a paper that is plantable. Which is to say, if you throw your copy of his novel into the ground, a birch tree, in this case, will grow from it. He is, in other words, sincere about what he was doing, and the public has responded to it.

The site, moreover, has graphic unity with the book’s design, and makes a seamless connection between author, tour, book and sponsors.

In an aside on the independent publicist, the success of this isn’t just that Kaelan hired an independent publicist to do this: Flatmancrooked, where he is no longer an editor, worked with him and his publicist cooperatively. Granted, as a founder and ex-editor, that helps, but in general too often independent publicists and inhouse publicity get on each other’s toes. This is… not awesome—inhouse often feels inherently criticized by the freelancer, even though they also are the first to tell you how much you have to do yourself. For reasons unclear to me, many of these never seem to remember that you are a writer and not a publicist also, as you forgot to go to school for that. So why do they then get hurt that you’d use another professional to help you do the part they themselves have said you have to do yourself? Can this silliness please just end forever? I am sure the issues are more complex than this author gets to know, I just ask inhouse publicists and marketing departments at publishing houses reading this to look at Kaelan’s story and see what can get done when the effort with independents is collaborative.

In any case, “The Story That Sells the Story” that Kaelan speaks of is essentially the narrative you as a writer are inside of or could be aware you are inside of if you could only see yourself from the outside, which, well, we are not often given to see. Kaelan and his team understood how he could take his passions and create a marketing plan organic to himself that tells readers who he is without being unnecessarily confessional or self-exposing. Yes, the open shirt might seem a bit much except I suspect James is one of those men for whom an open shirt is not so very strange. Rock climbers can be like that. The point isn’t to get shirtless onto P&W, but to figure out who you as a writer are and how you can participate in selling your book without feeling like throwing up. And perhaps even having fun in the process.

    For some past posts on blogging, check out my CLMP panel summary from 2008, when I spoke with Ed Park, Marie Mockett, Emily Gould and Luc Sante. Also, this post on a 2007 CLMP Conference, and this one.


    1. Thank you very much for these insights. I will be revisiting my approach to come up with something new, and the ideas in this post are unbelievably helpful and inspiring. –Cheri

    2. Thank you for this. You’ve given me an idea for a way to change my website, which normally just sits there like a dead fish. Or bibb lettuce.

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