Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

What We Blog About When We Blog About Books

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I recently got sent an advance copy of an upcoming book called Conversational Capital: How to Create Stuff People Love to Talk About. The title pretty much says it all – marketing is easier when what you are marketing is something people want to talk about. “The consumer does the marketing for you!” explains the press release that comes with the book. What could be simpler than getting someone else to do the work?

Things get a little more creepy and cultish inside the book, where various “engines” are identified that build conversation capital – things like Rituals, Myths, Relevant Sensorial Oddity, Icons, and Tribalism. It’s as if you hired Joseph Campbell to head up your marketing team.

But the point is still relevant, if obvious: if you want someone to pay attention to something, word-of-mouth is indispensable. You’re in a jam when what you’ve got is something no one wants to talk about – like, say, alcoholism, anal cysts, or first novels.

In the case of books, it’s a question of getting people to talk about the stuff you create.

Books have a hard time getting any serious attention these days, so out of desperation, authors, editors, and publicists seek out non-serious attention. Which is fine – to an extent. If the desired end result is a copy of a book in a reader’s hands, then things like Facebook, and blogs, and readings, and signings, and publicity gimmicks are all fair game.

The hard part is keeping clear what all this is for, and accepting that they aren’t the miracle marketing tools that they are sometimes taken for by people who don’t really understand what they are in the first place. Authors are constantly being urged to start a blog, get a web site, go online. In the majority of cases, the result is thousands of author blogs that go curiously silent about five posts in, and web sites that haven’t been updated since the day after the launch.

I started a blog a couple of years ago, not as a promotional device, but as an outlet for various observations, cultural critiques, and lazy one-liners I would otherwise reserve for e-mails to friends and drunken conversations. It was – and is – terrifically self-indulgent, pretty much by definition, but it wasn’t until it had been going for a while that I realized it could be useful in getting the word out on my first novel, too.

It has been useful, but not in the sense of driving hundreds of newly book-mad readers to the store to pick up my novel. And had I not already been writing a blog, I doubt I would have started one just for the sake of the book. (I also started a Facebook page for the book – Hey! Join it! – but that was mostly about annoying my friends and associates until they gave in and bought a copy.)

I happen to be sufficiently venal and corrupt for these kinds of things, and I do think authors must be prepared to sacrifice some of their time and dignity for the sake of promoting their books, but it’s simply not true that getting online or getting on Facebook is the fast-track to a talked-about book.

And as Michael Bryson of The Danforth Review notes in his report from the Writers’ Union of Canada’s recent AGM, there is the potential to put the marketing cart before the literary horse:

“The final message [of one seminar] was, it's an awful lot easier to sell non-fiction than fiction. Online communities can be built around areas of common interest – like wine – but how does a novelist build an online community. By spinning off a subject related to the novel? Isn't this just non-fiction? How does fiction survive in a virtual world demanding links to the ‘real’?”

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Nathan Whitlock

Nathan Whitlock is the review editor of Quill & Quire magazine. His writing and reviews have appeared in The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, Maisonneuve, Toro, Geist, Saturday Night and elsewhere. His novel, A Week of This: a novel in seven days, was published this spring by ECW Press.

Go to Nathan Whitlock’s Author Page