Thursday, 20 May 2010

The Author as a Performer

Do writers need to learn to sell themselves as much as their work?

As part of my MA course I have recently been engaged in creating a video pitch for my book proposal. Initially I felt it was a fun, if inconvenient diversion from the process of research and writing, but after agonising over scripts, market research and which section of my book to read out, I began to wonder why I was putting so much effort into it; surely a quick off-the-cuff 'Buy my book cos' it's going to be great!' slogan, along with half a chapter's reading, ought to hook anyone. The answer that occurred to me, as I went over the script once more, was a revelation; publishers aren't just looking for the next saleable novel, they are also looking for the next saleable author.

Look in the bookstores and you will see a pattern repeated over and again, the first book by an author shows the title in big letters, whilst the author's name appears in a more modest size. On subsequent books by that author their name is more likely to appear larger than the title, sometimes larger than anything else on the cover. Dan Brown, Iain Banks. Danielle Steel, Stephen King, it is the author that sells the books. That's what publishers want: to sell the writer as much as their work. It is not just about hiding behind a laptop and churning out masterpieces; it is also about interviews and readings, events and appearances. Of course, a publisher or agent should help in arranging these things, but in the end it is the author who must be the figure-head and the driving force behind their own marque. And they need to be convincing; people can spot a poor delivery a mile off. It is something a writer might find difficult to accept, but the actual words mean less, in these circumstances, than the way they are said. And it is never truer that nine tenths of communication is through body language than when you are in front of a camera.

Which is why I need to work on my presentation skills, learn to sound and look comfortable before an audience, and gain a politician's ease in chatting to people; it is not simply the skill of selling my thoughts I must develop, but the art of encouraging people to buy into the image of me as an author.