Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Self-Promotion, Capitalism, and The Unreasonable Demand of "Community Spirit"

If you are an author (or really any kind of creative professional) you have to hustle 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in order to stay one step ahead of the bill collectors. While there are some of us who've managed to build a big enough audience that we don't have to stand on the equivalent of an Internet street corner like a carnival barker, the exception very much proves the rule in this case. As folks say, even Dickens had to host public readings and hand-sell his books in order to keep his belly full.

Which brings me to today's topic... the double-edged sword of the Internet, and how so many people on it treat creators who are just trying to pay their rent.

Flame war? Oh, that's gonna make this an easy month...

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ABC... Always Be Closing

I mentioned this back in How Do You Sell Books? Alec Baldwin Has The Answer, but I thought I'd repeat it for folks who missed it. His famous scene in the film Glengarry Glen Ross, where Baldwin plays a hotshot salesman violently berating a team of underperformers who aren't making their quota, lays it out one of the central tenets of successful salesmanship; Always Be Closing. No matter where you go, no matter what you do, no matter who you're talking to, keep your eyes on that prize and do what you need to do to make that sale. Soft sell, hard sell, whatever you have to do you get them to sign on the dotted line, and close the deal.

It's a powerful scene, and even though it's Baldwin's only appearance in the film it got him nominated for an Oscar. It also illustrates the point quite neatly for anyone who is not an author who's wondering why it seems like every post we make is trying to get someone to buy our books... it's because we have to do that. Most of us do not have publicists, legions of adoring fans, or publishers with massive marketing budgets... we have ourselves, and however far we can project our voices.

And because we are struggling under capitalism, we usually don't have a safety net we can rely on. No regular monthly check, no health insurance, no housing vouchers... and that means we sink or swim based on our work, and how many people we can get to read it.

Conflict arises, though, because the very places we go to get traction (subreddits, forums, Facebook groups, or MeWe for the truly desperate among us) usually don't understand the nature of this hustle. So while we're trying to offer them the products of our imaginations, they're shouting about how we need to, "do it the right way," if we're going to promote our work in their space.

I will say this right here. Nine times out of ten when someone says, "I don't mind if you do it, but you have to do it the right way," what they're really saying is they don't want you to do it at all. Because as soon as you start discussing what the "right way" is they start getting angry and defensive, saying that if someone needs to explain it to you then you don't belong here anyway.

"Community Spirit" is Basically Just Demanding Free Labor

The most common requirement you see from these groups is that you need to be an "active participant" in the community. What they mean, of course, is that you have to make posts that are completely separate from your actual work in order to balance the scales.

To put it another way, they expect you to take time, effort, and energy to create free content for their community in exchange for allowing you to share a link to your book, your article, your blog, or your game. That's time you often don't have, and word count that would normally be worth money, just so that you can maybe, potentially find a follower, sell a book, etc.

Authors die of exposure every year, friends.

As a quick example, say that I went to a FB gaming page, and shared my post The 5 Awful Paladins You Meet in Your Gaming Career. It's a pretty long article that I spent a lot of time writing, finding the right photos for, etc., etc. Not only that, but it's free to anyone who wants to read it... all you have to do is click the link and bam, the content is right there in your hand.

Even in this situation, where the content is on-topic to the group, and where it's free of charge, people complain. They complain that they have to go to another site to see it, they complain that you didn't copy-and-paste all the content onto the post itself, or they complain that you're just there to make money... as if somehow you could devote your entire career to creating in a certain genre and not also be a fan of that genre.

And that's the point where my bullshit detector starts going off.

Because that's what the complaints boil down to more often than not if you learn to read between the lines. It's not that what you're sharing is off-topic, or that it doesn't apply here. In fact, if someone not you was sharing it, that would be fine and dandy with them! The problem only arises because you're the author, and you will make money from the activity surrounding this post. Which to their minds means you are feeding off the life force of their community... because they're here for the "pure" enjoyment of genre fiction, tabletop gaming, fun history facts, etc., but you've been tainted by your need to make money off of what (for them) is something they do for enjoyment.

So until you "prove" yourself to them (usually by making a lot of posts to show that you are totally willing to make content for free) you will never be truly part of the community in their eyes.

If You Don't Want Promotion, You Won't Have Creators

To be clear, here, I am not saying that all self-promotion should be allowed from all creators at all times. That is how you open the floodgates. However, it is far more reasonable to set limits on type and number of promotional posts (post no more than once a week, don't post about the same project twice in a month, etc., etc.) than it is to have some vague, amorphous, "Well, when we have deemed you are an 'active participant' in the community, then we will allow you to occasionally stand on your soap box and share your work with us," standard.

If you don't want creators talking about their projects and posting links to their work, bite the bullet and say so. Just understand that we are busy people, and we don't have blocks of time set aside every day to make unrelated social media posts to prove to strangers that we're genuine fans of the things we make for a living. You can't have your cake and eat it, in this case, because no matter how welcoming, how friendly, or how engaged a community is, you cannot pay rent, buy food, or keep your heat on with the positive regard and admiration of others if it is not, in some way, translated into enough earnings to pay your bills at the end of the month.

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned!

That's all for this week's Business of Writing! If you'd like to see more of my work, take a look at my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my noir thriller Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife as well as my recent collection The Rejects!

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  1. Well, I've got a day job, like most artists, because my art doesn't keep me fed. Hell, it doesn't even pay the coffee.

    But otherwise, bravo.

    I think that we're in a strange era, as now more than ever, artists are engaged in an ongoing minute by minute dialogue with our audience. And a giant chunk of that audience turns out to be whiny fucking assholes.

    I don't know what to do about that. Incessant demands, particularly incessant demands for free stuff, that sense of entitlement as a consumer, the arrogance and quibbling... it can make you want to quit.

    But I'm still in it. Keeping the day job. Which maybe allows me to spend a day a week doing what I love. So they haven't worn me down yet.

  2. Reddit is notoriously stuck in this "engagement" hole