The Sins of Self Promotion [NSFW]

I volunteer my time working with a not-for-profit organisation. What we’re trying to do is build a community, and find or build opportunities for creatives taking those initial steps into their chosen creative fields. It’s my job to be the opportunity finder and developer for the writers of the group. At the moment, we’re having a pretty sizeable problem. We have the means and the desire to give shout-outs about where you can find our writers and their work. Free promotion, right? Who wouldn’t want that?

Try everybody. When we ask people to send information in, we get the online version of the sounds of crickets. Imagine a roomful of people looking away, whistling and craning their neck into painful positions to avoid eye contact. That’s what it feels like.

Bored Dean
Just don’t look at the creative generator. Pretend she’s not even there.

I’m me, and if people are being weird, I’m almost always going to ask about it. So I asked. The issue seems to be that self-promotion isn’t a natural skill. It’s something that people aren’t used to, and it’s hard.

Though I’m sure it’s exacerbated by the great Australian tradition of not tolerating braggarts, the awkwardness of promoting yourself is a theme that shows up in creative groups around the world. We are great at being passionate fans of other people’s work, but when we’re asked to talk about what we’re working on? It’s a hot and flailing mess.

Looking around WS, it’s pretty clear I’m still learning the art of self-promotion. The ‘my writing’ section of WS is essentially empty, even though I’ve done quite a bit of writing. Why? Because I didn’t keep track of my publishing credits (pro tip: don’t fucking do that, okay? You worked your ass off to get yourself published, don’t turn around and dismiss it. Learn from my screw ups). The only time I’ve posted saying I’ve got work on display in a mag, it was because there was a funny story attached to it. This is not okay.

Obviously, I have not reached self-promotional enlightenment beyond a few fleeting moments. I am so far from being a guru on this that it’s laughable, so I took the issue to the writers outside my work sphere, and asked how they feel about self-promotion. The hands-down best answer:

It’s the creative person’s version of shaking your ass and swinging around a stripper pole. I feel like I should have nipple tassels and a feather boa whenever I try.

I have no self control with gifs, obviously.
I have no self control with gifs, obviously.

It’s hard to step outside your comfort zone and show people who and what you are. What if my writerly boobs aren’t perky enough? Or my tassels don’t twirl like someone else’s? What if nobody likes my lace-riddled tribute to Hilary Clinton, and I’m just standing on the stage in weirdly formal underwear without anyone caring? WHAT IF THEY LAUGH?

Okay, stepping away from that metaphor now.

Long story short: self-promotion makes a lot of people feel vulnerable and embarrassed, and more than a little egotistical.

There seems to be a few reasons why we keep quiet about our successes:

  1. We don’t want to sound like egotistical assholes. We’ve all seen that person who can take any topic of conversation and turn it straight back to themselves (the narcissistic and mean-spirited version of the SPN fandom on Tumblr, I guess). No one wants to be accused of bragging.
  2. We don’t think it’s helpful to the people around us to hear about our success.
  3. We’re terrified that people will realise just how shit we are. Writers are weird. We seem to veer crazily between ego and self-doubt. While most of us have writers we know think we’re better than, we also tend to be plagued by blind panic that people will realise we have no idea what the hell we’re doing. Seriously, what if everyone who ever told me those articles I’ve written are good are pathological liars? What if I put them online, and people look at them and laugh and laugh because really, I’m shit at this, and I’m too narcissistic to realise it?

    Writers are weird.

So let’s talk about the inherent bullshit of these arguments, shall we?

Bragging and self-promotion are not the same thing.
I’m not cruel enough to bore you with dictionary definitions, but let’s be clear about what these two ideas actually are. Bragging is generally an exaggeration- oftentimes it’s a way of saying that you’re the best without having anything there to back up the claim. Bragging is competitive. You’re saying your work is better than the work of those around you, and you’re measuring the worth of a work (or a person) in ways that aren’t always fair or truly meaningful. Bragging is about stroking the hell out of your own ego.

Self-promotion, though? It’s letting people know that you and your creations exist. It’s not saying this product will change your life because it’s the BEST THING EVER! It’s saying hey, I made this thing, and I think it could be useful to you, or that you might like it, or know someone else who would like it. It isn’t about selling to people so much as it is about helping them. For creatives, it can be as simple as making sure there’s somewhere for people to go to find out more about what you do. Whether it’s a devoted website or a RedBubble account, it’s useful to let people have a place they can go to find out more about you and the work you do.

Refusing to promote your own work is hypocritical
We don’t hesitate to sing someone else’s praises, because we can see its value, and the effort that went into it. We are passionate about the works other people create (don’t believe me? Go look at Tumblr for a while). Self-promotion is just giving yourself permission to admit to loving your own work as well as the works other people are making. How is that bad?

There is someone out there (someone outside your family, as they’re morally obligated to buy your work and tell you you’re wonderful) who is going to love the work you create. They are going to be a passionate supporter of your work, and the sort of awesome person who’ll tell other people they need your work in their life. You know how you get really excited about that show/band/movie/comic/book, and it makes your world infinitely better just for existing? Why on earth would you want to deny someone else that opportunity to fall in love with a creative work?

This right here is the face of everyone you're hiding your work from. Look at those eyes. How can you say no to that?
This right here is the face of everyone you’re hiding your work from. Look at those eyes. How can you say no to that?

It’s helpful to hear about other people’s experiences
Have you noticed that there’s a heap of internet space devoted to reviews and experience sharing? It’s because hearing other people’s stories are powerful, and we can learn a lot from the good and bad experiences other people have.

Talking about your writer’s journey (or whatever you want to call it) gives other people the chance to ask questions to someone who might just have an answer. Especially if you’re starting out. Sometimes, when you’re in an industry long enough, you forget what it’s like to start out. You forget how hard it was to get traction in your creative practice. Emerging writers and artists? They’re in the thick of it. They know exactly how hard it is to train people to leave you the hell alone long enough to get anything done. They know how painful it can be to make everything work, because it’s not necessarily a habit for them yet. Being able to ask questions of someone who is familiar with the stress and terror you’re feeling is important, and inspiring.

I think about it this way: we have fascinating stories about the struggles of super famous authors like J.K Rowling or Stephen King. They’re nice enough to point out the pot holes they stumbled on as they tried walking the path to publication, and people find that helpful. I can’t fix all the potholes I find, but if I point them out as I go, maybe someone else won’t have to sit around for a while with an ice pack on their ankle.

Self-promotion isn’t all spruiking your crap
It’s true that no one wants to hear you banging on constantly about what you’re currently trying to sell. If your every conversation devolves into ‘buy my book. JUST BUY IT PLEEEEEASE’, then people are going to get bored very quickly. Beating people over the head with your creation is never a good idea unless you’re in a life or death situation of some kind. But that doesn’t mean you can’t talk.

When we talk self-promotion, most of us think it’s just about selling something to people. But that’s a tiny part of the overall package. If you want to get holistic about it, self-promotion is more about giving than it is about selling. It’s about setting up a place for yourself where other people can come along and chat if they want to. It’s about helping other people.

You probably know a hell of a lot about your creative field, right? You don’t just mash the keyboard or canvas with your face, do you? You’re not the number one expert of the field, but you know stuff. So share what you know. Help people.

Am I good at this skill set? Meh. I’m learning. This is not me saying I’ve nailed it, because I’m still trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing here. Like I said, you don’t need to be perfect or at the top of the class to give it a try. I’m not trying to be the best, I’m trying to share the stuff that’s working, or not working, in the hopes that maybe I can point out the pothole before someone else trips over it.

Even Shakespeare has haters

Blackadder, fictional hero to bored high school students everywhere.
Blackadder, fictional hero to bored high school students everywhere.

I think so many of us veer between ego and doubt because we’re approval seekers. We’re people pleasers, and when people don’t like our work, we take it as a personal failing when it’s actually just people having different tastes.

I hated Shakespeare growing up. It was painful in school, and listening to the language mangled by bored English students really didn’t help. I didn’t understand it. And then I heard Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch reading sonnets, and decided to give it another go. I’m definitely a fan now. I just needed to hear it performed well to understand the rhythm and flow of the work. It was the same with ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. Hated studying it, loved reading it as an adult. I’m talking about (arguably) some of the greatest literature ever written, and in my younger days I found them boring as hell. Even the greats aren’t universally loved. It doesn’t detract from their talent.

Hierarchies are only useful if you think like you’re going to reach the top
Building ourselves a hierarchy as a base point reference isn’t unusual, but it is unhelpful. It’s all about that competitive mindset. In the parlance of the life coach, it’s coming from a place of lack rather than abundance. Just because someone else has a success doesn’t mean there’s one less success available to you.  That hierarchy mindset, where you feel like you’re a fraud against the ‘better’ writers and your talent is proved by the alleged lesser talents, just holds you back. Who cares that you’ll never be J.K? We already have one of those. What we don’t have is one of you.

This is not the Hunger Games
Every single one of us gets to make a choice about our attempts at a creative based career. We can treat it like we’re getting to be a part of a rich and vibrant community, or like we’re all running around inside The Hunger Games arena. While we’re acting like we’re fighting for survival, we’re treating everyone around us as potential enemies rather than allies. It’s a miserable way to live. You can be competitive if it gets your rocks off, but really? I’ve gotten to talk with a heap of authors at various levels of fame. And the overwhelming majority are focused on community rather than competition.

Sure, there’s a trend towards authors behaving badly, mostly on Goodreads and the like, as a way to falsely bulk up their good reviews at the expense of someone else. But they’re the minority. And you’ll learn pretty quickly who to avoid. There’s an upcoming post on this, so I’m not going to linger long beyond saying this is 100% a type of self-promotion to avoid like the plague. The vast and overwhelming majority of writers aren’t looking to steal your thunder or piss on your manuscript. They just want to write, and get published, and maybe even make a few friends.

So maybe, just maybe, this whole self-promotion thing isn’t as scary as we all seem to think it is.

It begs the questions: what scares you the most about promoting yourself, and your work? What has, and hasn’t, worked for you in the past?


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