Promotion is the way to sell anything at all in America, from a pet rock to a four-ton behemoth known as a Hummer, both of which are now obsolete. In the case of the Hummer, the brand was offered to the Chinese when it became untenable in the States and even they didn’t want it. But promotion sure made it hot here—Arnie helped with that—and when it was hot, it sold. People will buy anything, it seems. Give kids a choice and they don’t want home cooking, they want McDonalds.
How do I feel about promoting my work? When I finish a book, I’ve already spent a couple of months thinking what the next project might be, so I’m ready to write. At that time I typically contact 30-40 literary agents about the completed book, then later the same number of publishers directly (today with the Internet the number is closer to eighty). I gradually get disenchanted as I begin to run out of suitable matches (agents or publishers and books must match) and meanwhile I’m on page forty or so of the new book and really getting wrapped up in it, so I heave a great sigh and simply move on. I have repeated this process ten or twelve times in the course of my writing, to no avail with respect to publication. Sure, I know—it’s the old saying: if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.
Someone once told me that if I was serious about getting published, I’d move to New York. There, I could get to know agents and publishers, and maybe even take a job as an editor to pay for it. That’s good advice. After all, meeting people face to face, letting them get to know me, having the time to gradually describe my ideas—that’s surely the way to go. Why didn’t I do this?
I think there are a couple of reasons why I eschewed a “literary career” there. The first should already be obvious: where’s the Nature? Sure, there’s Central Park or a walk along the river for a little taste, and those affluent enough can go to the Hamptons in August like my cousin and her husband did every year. To me that’s more like “Nature on a Plate,” while I need to see trees and hills and water every time I look out the window. The only time I lived in a city without this was Tokyo (though my wife and I moved out to a more “leafy” area after a year). New York shares some of this feeling; I’ve heard the city characterized as “The Cave” by half a dozen people over the years, and I don’t think I need to explain why.
Another reason I resisted moving there isn’t far removed from my rationale about Hollywood—to live in NY and be faced daily with the money and glitz of the literary world (yes, I know there’s more to it than that) would be a constant temptation. I’ve lived there for short periods—it’s so expensive; I lived so poorly—and I saw people exulting in money and privilege, moving so fluidly and comfortably with the best of everything, and the last thing I needed was to have the slightest tickle that if only I’d write something a little more accommodating to the common themes of the times, I, too, might improve my lot in life. I might not only get something, but even become somebody. I ask you to have some feeling for what this temptation might be like. And who knows how many years I might be there trying to make that happen? Some people go to New York, like Hollywood, for a short time and never leave.
Finally, when living in the States, I was a West Coast person. I lived for years in California, Oregon and Washington (about 18 years worth) and although I’ve been to New York for several weeks or longer about eight or nine times (longest time: six months) and enjoyed it, I was always a “foreigner” there. That is, they didn’t understand me and I didn’t really understand them. I remember meeting a Manhattan-born journalist at a party in Southampton one summer and she said she’d just returned from several months in San Francisco writing a story. “I couldn’t figure out what those people were doing with their lives,” she said to me by way of describing her impression; “I had absolutely no idea.” (Joel Garreau’s book “The Nine Nations of North America,” about perceptions, values and aspirations differing markedly from one part of the country to the next, describes this phenomenon.) Anyway, to make a long story short: though I have always liked the people I met in New York, I didn’t think like a New Yorker and no matter how many times I went there, I felt like an outsider.
Of course, one doesn’t have to live in New York to get published. “The Bridges of Madison County” was written far from there, as was “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” But with books whose content seems as out of step with the thinking times as mine, it certainly couldn’t have hurt.
There are other ways of promoting oneself. I remember reading about Allen Ginsberg, self-promoter extraordinaire, whose writing was so far out there in the 50s that he had little chance of being heard. He went hat in hand to poet William Carlos Williams, who apparently had some clout at the time, asking him to help a struggling young guy out. Ginsberg’s poetry is about as far from Williams’ as one could imagine, but he was persuasive and Williams took a chance and championed him.
Years later I read another story about Ginsberg, who often traveled around with other Beats giving readings. At the conclusion of one, someone asked why they had to be so explicit in pouring out their thoughts and feelings and the reply was, “To really communicate, we have to become naked.” “What do you mean by ‘naked’?” the questioner asked. To which Ginsberg replied by taking off his clothes right there on stage. (This made the news.) Far from being naive about the American psyche, he was well aware of not only the truth of his writing, but self-promotion!
Am I willing to “take off my clothes” to promote a book? You might say I did so once when I walked from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. with a book for the President. Yet I did that walk to increase the chances that he’d actually take the thing, not to promote it to agents or publishers. In the time since, I can’t really recall doing anything promotional with my unpublished books—other than sending the right people queries and sample chapters. Even this blog, as I hope I’ve made clear in the very beginning, isn’t calculated to attract a publisher. But why don’t I use any means possible to sing my praises (oh so cleverly) in order to land a big fish (or any fish)? One, it’s just not my style—some people are salespeople, some are not, though today we’re all expected to be—and second, 98% of my energy is put into the writing and I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that. I can’t say that I have no time for promotion, but I have very little energy for it.