The idea for this post emerged when we were having lunch one day and I complained that some of my academic colleagues didn’t like blogs or blogging – and viewed me with some suspicion because I enjoy it so much. Evelyn wondered if some academics are “too posh to promote” and told me about the classes on online marketing she is doing with creative writers. I thought it was so interesting I asked her to blog it for me.
Unlike some creative writers, I have a hard-nosed commercial bent to the way I promote my work that comes from a decade at the coal face of tabloid newspapers. Every journalist knows that you have to sell your story idea to the Chief of Staff or section editor before it will have the chance of getting in the paper, and you do this day in and day out, deadline after deadline.
Heard the one about the journalist too posh to promote? No, neither have I. But when it comes to creative writing many emerging fiction writers are nervous about how to sell themselves without selling out. What if they have yet to score that book deal? It’s a case of what comes first – the chicken or the egg? The book deal or the self promotion?
Then there are published authors who would prefer not to get their hands dirty with what they regard as a publicist’s job – or are simply unsure of how to best go about harnessing digital media to promote themselves.
This doesn’t just apply to writers. Academics can be very ivory tower about going digital with their ideas, preferring to keep to the prestige journals and monograph book publishing contracts at a university press. The fact that these rarefied routes may reach only hundreds of readers if they are lucky doesn’t deter them. Indeed, the savvy academics who garner thousands of readers via blogs and online opinion sites are often seen as “sell-outs”.
I am not sure why having a large audience is a bad thing. Don’t we want people to interact with our work? Don’t we want our ideas to spread and flourish?
I work in a public art gallery promoting artists, and I can understand why they, just like writers, are reluctant to self promote. Unlike actors, their work isn’t about being on stage and in front of everyone. Indeed, actor/writers like Stephen Fry, Richard E. Grant and Steve Martin have very good digital footprints and are incredible self promoters and I believe this is because they have learned to accept rejection at the audition stage. They are also skillful in presenting a “public persona” that is both the “real” them but one step (or more) removed, so it is not like being naked on stage when they are promoting their movie on a TV talk show.
Writers, artists – and many creative academics – are different. Unlike actors who can “disappear” into a role, for these people work is the heart and soul, blood and guts of what they do, and rejection is heartbreakingly personal. Creative people feel things sharply, which is how they can create entire fictional worlds and artworks out of thin air. Like the canary down the mine shaft, their antennae is calibrated to the zeitgeist. It’s like they tap into the raw nerve of humanity and bleed for all of us.
So it is brutally difficult for them to put on the sandwich board and call out – “roll up, roll up, see what I have got!”
Alas, that’s the cold reality of 21st century life. As the digital revolution gives opportunities, it also takes away whole professions and people who used to be able to help creative types; such as publicists on tap at publishing houses.
This is why we all need to be able to get out there and push and promote.
I teach a tertiary course that helps creative practitioners do just that. Using a mixture of entrepreneurship, business, public relations and journalism skills, this course assists students to be their own best publicist.
I know an academic who dismisses the skills of communications practitioners with the line “any sentient being can teach themselves to write a media release” – which is certainly true if a business kindly hands you information about a product they would like you to promote. But what if you are that product? How do you objectively write about yourself?
Learning how to put on a public persona online is the key to promoting your work. It is also easier if you stand back and see yourself as a brand, rather simply a single product like a thesis, exhibition or book. To do this, I ask students not to focus on the one thing they are working on, but all they have to offer and what makes them unique. I get them to do a SWOT analysis, which might seem odd to creative people.
SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats – and you really need to assess these honestly to see where you fit in your chosen marketplace. This is your brand, and it is more than the one thing you are working on, even if that is an all consuming thesis. Besides, PhD’s are now so varied an artist may be working on an exhibition for their doctorate, just as I am working on a novel for my doctorate in creative writing.
How can you use your research skills to become a public intellectual, rather than a one-monograph wonder? By doing your SWOT, and knowing your brand. Postgraduate students have to narrow their focus for their doctorates. I encourage them to think widely about how to apply their broad areas of expertise to the marketplace. And figure out how to leverage what they know into what is topical, newsworthy and current.
My students have often found this confronting at first, but as we mind map and brainstorm, it gets easier and more exciting for them to expand the many areas of knowledge they have into a whole range of business ideas, pitches for news related stories, books, websites and a whole range of products.
I set them an exercise is to look at how their favorite authors promote themselves on the web. Who has a website, who has a blog, who tweets and who has a business Facebook page? The answer is that while the web is filled with savvy Australian writers who have realized they need to be their own publicist, there are also others who are either too posh to promote, or too scared, or just haven’t understood that it is necessary.
The title of my paper at the recent Independent Publishers Conference at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre for Books and Writing, held by the Small Press Network, was “Google Me: writers taking control of their brand in an era of digital publishing”. I asked – what does your digital footprint say about you? I revealed some tips on how to build value around your core brand.
Futurist Gerd Leonhard says that “trust is the new currency” and I maintain that you nurture that trust with your audience by giving away some of your work and ideas for free – knowing that it will build your brand and expand your fan base. After all, who is going to buy your books, come to your exhibition, fill the seats at your conference presentations and ultimately, follow you to the university that will gladly have you teach for them if you can show that you do indeed have a fan base?
It’s your fans. The people you have nurtured through social media.
It is very 20th century to rely on getting a book contract and think that’s all there is to having a writing career. Or landing a lecturing or research position and believing you can avoid having to dirty your hands by constantly selling your ideas to the world. This is the 21 st century, and you need to play by the new rules. The academic adage is not longer just publish or perish. It is promote or perish.
Gerd Leonhard says that social networkers are the new broadcasters. What happened to the old broadcasters? Declining newspaper sales, television announcers being boned, programs being axed, mighty media empires crumbling. So, don’t be old school – know your brand, and promote it. Learn from the savvy creatives who do just that – Google them! For more tips, check out my website (www.evelyntsitas.com) and buy my book on entrepreneurship for creative practitioners when I launch it next year!
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