The Internet is an amazing tool for creators. With Kickstarter, Patreon, Amazon Kindle books, PayPal, Bandcamp, and other forward-looking tools, writers, musicians, comic creators, artists, filmmakers and yodelers can put content online and then spend every waking hour of their lives marketing themselves until they vomit putrid bile on their keyboard.
Like all the cool kids, I'm trying to stick it to the man and avoid the stodgy gatekeepers via the new paradise of crowdfunding. I've got a Patreon and I'm publishing e-book collections. I’ve been freed from the tyranny of the news hook. No longer do I have to write the five millionth Beyoncé think piece, or babble about the latest superhero movie. Instead, I can write about Lair of the White Worm even though there's no particular reason to write about Lair of the White Worm. Isn't Patreon great?
It’s kind of great. But nobody really talks about the downside. Which is that, when you escape the unimaginative mainstream media, you fall, inevitably, into the fire of perpetual shill.
When you write for a mainstream site—or smaller site—you get a check (big or small), and your job is done. Sure, you're usually expected to post your link to social media and try to drum up some interest, but if the interest isn't there, it's not really your problem. You're a writer, not a salesperson.
But if it's just you, then the only way to get money is to convince people to give you money. And then convince more people. And more people. You’re a personal NPR fund drive, begging readers to contribute. Please, please, please, please, please, you say. And then you say it again. Begging, promotion, begging, promotion, begging. This is your business model and pit of despair, all in one.
Romance novelist Jenny Trout wrote an impassioned blog post last week chastising authors for getting all up in their readers' social media. Trout was specifically talking about writers begging readers for Amazon reviews. "Don't Do This Ever," the headline declared, and Trout insists in the body of the piece, "If someone is paying you for a book, all they need to give you is money. My dentist has never once said to me, ‘Yeah, you paid your bill, but if you don’t help me fix this hole in the roof, I have to close down my practice.’”
I understand Trout’s point. Having an author constantly badger you to promote or buy their work, is wearisome and irritating, not least because, on social media and online, we're all receiving such requests constantly, all the time. In our decentralized netopia, everyone is everyone else's promotional team. The goal is not just to market yourself, but to coerce everyone else into marketing you, too.
This is gross. But the neoliberal truth is that no one will buy your shit if you don't ask them to buy your shit—and, in my experience, no one will leave you reviews if you don't ask them. And reviews matter when you're trying to market a book with no promotional budget, because the only thing a reader is going to know about the title is what they learn from reviewers on Amazon. When you've got hundreds of thousands of fans, you can leave them alone, maybe, and trust a few will volunteer to spread the word. When you've got 10 fans, you need to be more proactive.
The worst part of the marketing treadmill, perhaps, is that it works. Not that constantly yelling, "Buy my book!" will turn you into J.K. Rowling, but it does work to a degree. Tooting your own horn is repulsive, soul-killing, and your only hope if you want to write for someone other than your immediate blood relatives. The Internet empowers creators by allowing them to be entrepreneurial hucksters.