Growing A Writing Career

Success stories are built on relationships. Does that mean writers shouldn’t pay for reviews, publicity, or conferences?

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The creative dance shouldn’t depend solely on your friends’ approval.

First, a few things about me. I’ve been a professional book reviewer since 2009. I review work from independent presses and self published authors. My reviews are absolutely worth $500 a pop. (Though that’s not what I charge.)

In addition to writing reviews, I’ve edited manuscripts for Simon & Schuster as well as many self published and indie authors. I’ve read submission slush. My first book was published by a micro press in 2016. My second is forthcoming from indie powerhouse Interlude Press in November 2019. The books I co-author and ghostwrite have been published by large and small houses, including St. Martins Press and A&G Press. I think it’s fair to say I have some insight on the industry.

Bear in mind that not every author has the privilege, time, network, or desire to be a one-person show. Self publishing produces some incredible, unique work: it can also devour your life.

It is true that there are marketing companies out there that prey on authors who are frustrated by whatever limitations they’re currently facing. However, painting all publishing support services with the same brush is an immature perspective.

Publishing is an ecosystem. Authors, publishers, editors, reviewers, publicists, proofreaders, lawyers, distributors, booksellers — it’s huge. Writing off one part of that ecosystem doesn’t mean it stops existing. It means you’re signing up to take that role on, yourself.

What does that mean? Well, in this case, it means you’re willing to leverage every relationship you have in order to get your work reviewed. (For free, I might add.) Rather than hire an impartial reviewer, you capitalize on your friendships and convert friends into free labor.

That may be OK for some authors, but not everyone wants to make their relationships transactional. Codependency is a serious problem in the creative community; feeding into it for your material benefit is exploitative and icky.

Something many self published creators seem to struggle with is the concept of consequences within the publishing ecosystem. Money doesn’t come from nowhere: if you want to be your own publisher, you will be responsible for all the fees associated with that role.

Also, what is your goal for your writing? Are you a niche project, with a special angle that appeals to a narrow demographic? (Hint: this is true for many self published authors.) If you are a self published author who wants more exposure, you will have to look beyond your immediate, adoring supporters. For most of us, family and friends are unlikely to place reviews of your work in high profile journals. Not all of us have famous fathers.

If that’s the position you’re in, you may not need to hire a publicist. Or, you may not care to hire one. If you want the same results as an author who does work with one, you will have to commit to being your own publicist. That means going to every conference and networking event and being That Guy who drums up support for your book. And again, not everyone has the financial support, time, temperament, or desire for that.

The same is true for marketing. You can market your own book, sure, but there’s a price tag. Even zero-cost marketing takes time, effort, and energy.

Moving laterally, I want to point out that a $500 review is something that your publisher will buy for you if you go the traditional route. Your publisher has a marketing budget. This covers paid reviews. If you’re a self publisher, you pay your own way. That’s why I think it’s naive for self published authors, cartoonists, and creators to complain about the cost of paying a reviewer to help with your book, whether you’re asking for editing services or a review. The reviewer’s work is valuable, too. Their contribution can lighten your load.

Of course, not all reviews are created equal. Springing for a spotlight review in an obscure journal is probably a waste of your money. In that case, you’d be better off trading cute, cheap swag for positive Amazon reviews.

However, there are the trade magazines. And those, my friends, are game changes for authors. I’m most familiar with Foreword Reviews and Clarion Reviews, since I write for them, but there are several others.

Who reads trade magazines? Book buyers. Librarians. People who are actively looking for new and interesting work. They’re not a casual fan, who might click through your Patreon without buying anything; trade readers buy books, sometimes in bulk.

The additional benefit of a review that wasn’t written by your friends is that you will get honest feedback on your work. Surrounding yourself with eager sycophants feels good but is not the path to better art. For example, I reviewed the latest volume of Oh Joy Sex Toy comics. This web comic series has a rabid fan following, even though many elements of it are extremely problematic. As a reviewer, my job isn’t to drum up support for this book or be a cheerleader. My job is to give an honest opinion about that book to people who don’t know the authors: people outside their network. My job is to assess the work without the hype. I also identify issues like bigotry, transphobia, fetishizing marginalized identities, bad writing, and straight-up ignorance.

A good review says the things your friends won’t tell you. It looks at your book with a gimlet eye and tells a librarian in Ithaca, New York whether they really want it on their shelves. A good reviewer has not been leveraged, charmed, or converted into a supporter.

Real art goes out into the world — to places where the artist can’t control it. You can’t “control the channels” or “contextualize your work” indefinitely; certainly not if you want to reach new readers, challenge people, or grow creatively.

Should you pay for it? That’s your call. Just make sure you get your money’s worth.

Author. Your favorite uncle. New York Times, Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Catapult. Buy my book: https://bit.ly/2OIIjGc

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