Marketing Is Not A Substitute for Talent

Next month, my writers group is holding a lecture called “Marketing Yourself as a Writer.” There is no description of what the lecture entails, other than the title, but I find that when I see people discussing “marketing yourself as a writer,” either in lecture form or as a blog post, I get squirmy. I don’t know that I always used to feel this way. Indeed, I probably once thought that marketing yourself as a writer was a good thing. I don’t really believe this anymore.

Let me clarify that statement a bit. I don’t believe a writer should spend a significant amount of time marketing themselves as a writer. Of course, “significant amount” is vague and probably differs from writer to writer. If you want hard numbers, I’d probably say something like, for every 100 hours you spend writing, spend 1 hour “marketing yourself as a writer.”

I have two main reasons for coming to believe this:

  1. Marketing is not a substitute for talent.
  2. Marketing tends to easily become annoying to others.

Allow me to elaborate a bit.

Marketing is not a substitute for talent

This really only matters if you are trying to write good stories. It seems to me that good stories market themselves. You don’t need to sell yourself when you have a good story. All you need to do is submit the story to the appropriate market and wait patiently for an editor to recognize the talent. Or submit the story to an agent and do the same. Or, if you are an independent writer (whatever that means) you self-publish your story and wait for people to start buying it because it is good.

I suppose the argument goes that for indie writers, marketing is the mechanism that let’s people know a story is available. Okay, sure, a little time investment in marketing here makes some sense. But it is not a substitute for talent. And I get the feeling, reading various posts, that marketing yourself as a writer is being used as a substitute for talent. It seems to me that a writer’s time is much better spent improving his or her craft. The only way to get better is write stories and learn from them. This is why I think a writer should spend the bulk of their time writing. If a writer has talent, persistence, and some level of humility, they will eventually get noticed.

Stephen King was once just a kid submitting stories with absolutely no track record whatsoever. So was Isaac Asimov, Connie Willis, Robert Silverberg, J. K. Rowling, and pretty much every other successful writer in the world. They got to where they are because of talent. Marketing may have played a factor in their superstardom, but that was only after they’d demonstrated that they had talent worth marketing.

The corollary is that marketing yourself as a writer when you write mediocre stories is essentially marketing yourself as a mediocre writer, which is probably not what you intend.

Then, too, every minute you spend marketing yourself as a writer is a minute that you are not improving your writing. It makes me think of two types of baseball players. There are players that talk themselves up with the press but perform only average on the field. Then there are players–Derek Jeter is an example–who do their best to steer clear of the limelight, and let their talent on the field speak for itself.

It was only when I started concentrating on spending as much time as I could writing stories that I really began selling them in greater number. The amount of marketing involved in those sales was incredibly small, and most of the marketing was limited to a covering note that read something like:

Please consider the enclosed 5,200 word science fiction mystery for publication in Analog. My fiction has previously appeared in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Apex Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and other markets.

Yes, I can hear some people say, but you see, you already had  publications that you could list in your cover letter as “marketing.” What about those of us who don’t? To that I’d point out that when I sent my cover letter to InterGalactic Medicine Show in 2006 for my story “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer,” I had no previous publications listed. I was a new writer.

Marketing yourself as a writer can become annoying to others

First, let me say that I don’t exclude myself here. I am sure that at times my posts announcing a new story sale or story appearance have been annoying to people. I have tried to cut back. My belief that talent should speak for itself goes to the extreme with me. I have deliberately avoided even listing what fiction I published in a given year, and what is eligible for various genre awards. My personal belief, for my own fiction, is that if it does get noticed without my help, it is not award-worthy.

I don’t really mind people reminding everyone what is eligible for awards. Most writers I know do this very tastefully. What bothers me is shotgun marketing, something which I see more and more of, and something that, it seems to me, comes more often than not from self-published writers.

Example: I try to accept all friend requests on various social media. Recently, however, I’ve accepted requests and found, almost seconds later, a message in my queue from the person whose request I accepted touting their latest novel and why it is the greatest thing ever. Often these messages are four or five paragraphs in length. When I see a message like this, I immediately regret accepting the friend request. If you have to take four or five paragraphs to tell me how great your novel is, you are doing it wrong.

There is a place for marketing, but it should never be a shotgun approach. It is terribly annoying. This kind of annoyance has crept into various genre discussion groups making me want to visit them less and less. When Google Plus released its Communities feature, I was invited to dozens of communities. I joined a few that seemed to focus on science fiction writing and fandom. I left them almost at once when the bulk of the posts turned out to be people touting their latest self-published novel or story, one that would change the world. I get enough junk mail in my mailbox at home, I don’t need it in my discussion groups.

I feel like I am coming across as a grumpy old man here, and that is not my intent. Really, my intent is to caution writers to give careful consideration to why they are marketing in the first place. Given the choice between spending my time writing and spending my time marketing my writing, I will almost always choose the former. I didn’t always see it this way, at least not until I realized that marketing is not a substitute for talent. If you have the talent, you don’t need to worry nearly as much about the marketing. And how do you get the talent? Practice, practice, practice.

One comment

  1. Jamie – did I tell you that I work for a marketing services company now? It’s eye opening. When I read your post I can’t help but see it from a work point of view, and I think you’re absolutely right – there is no substitute for being a good writer.

    That being said, I’ll break this down to a language you speak fluently:

    IF (writing = awesome) AND (Marketing = Great)
    THEN …. I think you’re going to be able to inspire, entertain, and affect a lot of people. More people than if your marketing is crappy.

    Always a treat to read your blog posts. Thank you.


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