Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Selling Yourself.

In the world of professional publishing, we as writers are both a product and a service, and it’s up to us to present ourselves in this manner. We’re of value to a potential editor and/or publisher; we just have to convince them of what we already know, right?

Oddly enough, I tend to suck at selling myself.

Specifically, I still struggle when it comes to introducing myself to editors, agents, and other publishing professionals. Take this past weekend, for example: Comic-Con International in San Diego. Tens of thousands of people milling about the exhibitor’s hall, and in the midst of that chaos were booths sponsored by publishers big and small. You’d think it’d be easy enough for a guy like me, a reasonably accomplished if not well-known sort, to walk up to one of these booths and feel comfortable talking shop, but as usually seems to be the case, I often was second-guessing myself at the moment of truth. It wasn’t such a problem if I at least knew the person in the booth by name or perhaps even had exchanged earlier e-Mails with them, but a cold introduction?


It’s a lot like when you finish a story and you’re getting up the courage to mail it to the faceless editor you’ve never met, only here you don’t even have the cushion of distance to ease your uncertainty. It’s you and your prospective client, face to face, and everything hinges on the next words to come out of your mouth...assuming you can make your mouth work.

I did have some success, of course. I met several writers in fields outside my own, and we spent a few pleasant minutes here and there swapping war stories before exchanging info. Likewise, a couple of good discussions were enjoyed with friends and colleagues, during which plans of one sort or another were hatched. And I did introduce myself to a few new folks at publishers’ booths where conversations ensued, and I came away with contact information and an agreement to communicate after the mayhem of the con was behind everyone.

Did I take full advantage of the opportunities presented by the con? Honestly? No, owing mostly to my own nervousness with such situations. I always feel out of my depth at these things. Part of me always wonders if the con’s hectic nature just makes attempting any sort of introduction worthwhile. Would the business card I gave the booth person go in a pocket, a box, or the trash? How many other hopeful, hungry writers were selling themselves to editors and publishers just as I was? Quite a few, obviously, and while I imagine most of the people working those booths took such introductions as to be expected in the con environment, I still was wondering if their first reaction as I walked up was something along the lines of, “Oh, great. Another one.”

I suppose it’s worth noting that I’m better at dealing with these scenarios now than I was a few years ago. A little better, anyway. I’ve refined how I present myself and what I do, how to say what I want to convey, and shortening the amount of time it takes to say it while still communicating the appropriate and relevant information. As my resume has grown, so too has my confidence in selling myself, but there’s still that little bit of anxiety taunting me whenever I enter these situations. The rational part of the brain-like thing renting space inside my skull tells me the only way to get over this self-doubt is to keep at it; continue preparing myself as I would for any other job interview, and convincing that other person that I’m a seasoned professional with valuable skills to offer.

From discussions I had over the weekend, I know I’m not the only writer who feels uncomfortable selling themselves. Even some veteran pros—people I’d never having any kind of trouble with this—have confided that they still feel that momentary apprehension in these types of situations. “Just keep working at it,” they tell me.

How about you? Are you a natural seller, or does it come a bit harder for you? Are you a smooth talker, or do you feel like your tongue sometimes wants to fight you over every word? How do you prepare for making these types of introductions, and do you have any particular success (or horror) stories you want to share?


Charles Gramlich said...

I move between moods of "just give it up, you can't sell yourself," to "you've got to try harder to sell yourself," to "ok, maybe this will work." It's the single greatest agony. If I quit writing, that will be the reason.

Liane Spicer said...

I'm definitely not a natural seller. It's hard enough for me to get into the mode online; doing it in person would probably render me catatonic.

...Maybe I exaggerate there. I can prepare myself beforehand and slip into the extrovert disguise when I have to, but it takes a lot of effort and a big toll on me after.

KeVin K. said...

I'm going to make it to ComicCon next year or the year after. For several years I went to GenCon, which is a gaming convention, and had some luck making new contacts. But I had a defined role in the industry: I wrote fluff - all the descriptions and stories, etc., that give the game context but have nothing to do with crunch - the mechanics of how the game works and is played. I could carry scenario books, etc., around with me and have a good chance the person I approached already knew something about the universe (game folks watch each other closely). Trying to move beyond that is difficult; you're typecast. The most useful connection I made was with a book packager. They handle pitching ideas and delivering the finished product - and occasionally send me a contract. Going out on my own - or even outside gaming - I'm not as comfortable. But, while I'll always be involved in the game industry, I am widening my horizons. How 'bout next year I be your wingman?

Sunny Frazier said...

Has it ever occurred to you that EVERYONE is a stranger at some point? I never think I'm selling myself, but just curious to know the others in the crowd. True, the mystery crowd I hang with are a loose bunch (we murder people) and very friendly. But, before I go to any event, I study the names of participants and I know a little something about everyone who is going to attend. Then I try to find them, sort of like a scavenger hunt. I pounce with some trivial piece of info about their life ("How's your cat Sherlock?") and it's on.

Do your homework. And, think about making someone else comfortable instead of concentrating on your own discomfort. Don't sell yourself short.

Dayton Ward said...

These are good points, Sunny, particularly for conventions where you might know the names of all the guests/etc. ahead of time. Actually, in those situations, I'm definitely more at ease, for the very reasons you cite.

Comic-Con, however, is a whole other animal. It's more like a trade show for geeks (he says with affection, as he's a geek, too), and there's no way to know who's in that booth until you get up there. Sometimes, I'm able to recognize a name, but more often, it's somebody with whom I'm not familiar.

I also like the humor angle. I often try to break the ice in just that fashion. Example: I approached one booth where the lone person behind the tables was eating. She smiled around a mouthful of food as she tried to swallow before talking to me, but I held up a hand and said, "Please, don't let me stop you. I'd rather be remembered as the guy who didn't make you choke."

Of course, she then laughed, and choked...a little, but by then the ice was broken ;)

William Doonan said...

I'm with you, Dayton. Like Charles said, this is the single greatest agony. I'm a teacher, so I talk with people for a living every day, but the idea of getting up there and putting myself at the center of even some small arena of attention to talk about myself or my books, it doesn't come naturally. I can do it, but it's like line dancing - it requires great energy, enormous concentration, and the suspension of belief that I'm actually doing this.

Unlimited EBooks said...
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Sunny Frazier said...

Bill (and I can snap at him because I'm his Posse leader), the point is not to box yourself into a corner and just talk about your book! Sure, that could be daunting. But, you can talk about archeology, which we're all a bit fascinated with since Bones. And, you could talk about the premise that Muslims preceded even the Spanish into Peru. I'm still wondering if that's based on truth or just your imagination and wishful thinking.

This is talking AROUND your book. That's was listeners want and where fans come from.

John Brantingham said...

Also, I think the strategy need to be in part to talk about the other person there. Make them interested about you by first showing that you are interested in them. I don't mean this in a false way. If you are at the convention, you probably do have the same interests. Once you engage them and find out what they're selling / doing and find out what makes them interesting, they're going to be interested in you and you won't be nervous. Now you're talking to a friend.

Lesley Diehl said...

I'm a real introvert, but I findI can talk to people if I know a little about them, as Sunny suggested. If you do your homework, you can always find something to say about what you found interesting about them. Or ask them a question. The key here is to focus on THEM, not YOU. And if they just babble away about themselves with no interest in you, then you know even more about them and can avoid them in the future!

Stephen L. Brayton said...

One of the things I've learned and, unfortunately, have to keep reminding myself about is: smile. When you walk into a new situation, meeting people, having to talk with new people, in front of people, you will be better accepted if you enter with a smile. It can cover the nervousness. If you walk in showing people you're nervous or wary, people pick up on that. Smile and things can come easier.

elysabeth said...

When my first couple of books were published, I used to carry bookmarks around with me (I use them as my business cards) and since I write children's books (a state mystery series is what I'm working on) whenever I would see a family out and about, I'd kind of approach the kids asking them if they liked to read (mostly targeting the age group my books are geared for) and if they said yes, I'd pass a bookmark and explain to the parents what I wrote. I sold several books from my car that way - in the most unusual places (Big Lots and Dollar Tree and the grocery stores). Did I have phenomenal sales from that? No, but I was talking about my books and selling myself and getting my name out there.

True, when I was younger, much younger, I was a shy person and had you asked me 25 years ago about selling myself and my books, I would have told you I couldn't ever do something like that. Now that I've aged and have some wisdom and am no longer a shy person, I find that talking about my books and myself as a writer is an easy feat in that I just plow ahead and jump in with both feet and go for it.

I agree with Sunny about the fact that everyone is a stranger until we make that connection - the commonality we have. Obviously if you were at Comic Con - you all have that commonality and should be able to start a discussion about comics in general and then narrowing it down to your book(s) and you.

It's the reason you go to these events to get your name out there and you can't get your name out there if you don't start talking.

I'm doing several things this year that I've not done in years past an keep hoping for a big break. I guess I'll see where all my adventures take me by the end of the year (my tagline for my state books is Where will the adventure take you next?).

I guess the best saying here is "Buck up and just do it." - Sell yourself and your books will sell. Make the introductions and jump in with both feet. Whatever you do make it work for you in a positive way. - E :)

Elysabeth Eldering
Author of FINALLY HOME, a middle grade/YA paranormal mystery (written similar to a Nancy Drew mystery)

Author of the Junior Geography Detective Squad (JGDS), 50-state, mystery, trivia series
"Train of Clues" (a mystery destination story, predecessor to the JGDS series)
Where will the adventure take you next?

William Doonan said...

Sunny, (and I can snap back because you're my Posse leader) - I didn't say I was going to talk about my book. If you look at my comment, you can see that I said talking about MYSELF or my books doesn't come naturally.

Like I said, I can do it, and I understand why it needs to be done, but it's not the most comfortable thing in the world.

Dayton Ward said...

I can talk to/about the other person all day, without ever steering the discussion anywhere near me or my work. A lot of times, THAT'S the problem. LOL :)

Jewel Amethyst said...

While I can keep up a great conversation in a small comfortable setting, I have had a hard time talking about myself or my work in any setting-- even online. At conferences I find mysef taking a backseat, blending into the walls.

Its not just the discomfort, but in my case (maybe others too) it's battling what I have been taught over the years about being humble and not tooting your own horn. I've been around many athletes who constantly brag about themselves and their accomplishments, and it's a turnoff for me. In the same vein, talking about my work feels like I'm doing what these athletes do and it is very uncomfortable. Hence my first instinct is to downplay my achievements.

I guess I need to find a balance and retrain myself to distinguish selling myself and my work from bragging.

Kat Hinkson said...

I'm not a natural born seller, I've had to learn to speak up, mingle and greet.
I did something at a writer's conference that I never thought I could do. I actually walked up and introduced myself to an agent, before the conference got into full swing.
I had caught a blog of Jim's where he talked about a movie we both liked. I talked about the movie with him. I was the only one who laughed at the references.
It was fun and easy, that time.
But you should most certainly research those in attendence to make it ealier to talk to.
Hang in there and seller yourself.

Sunny Frazier said...

No, Bill, you said getting up in front of people and talking about yourself and/or your book makes you uncomfortable. I'm saying, talk about neither. How uncomfortable are you talking about archeology? You lecture on that subject. THAT'S what you talk about, only in the context of the book and what went through your head when you were plotting/writing it. What questions did you want to pose to the readers? What did you want to intrigue them with? What intrigued you?

Jewel, I don't call it "bragging." I call it "being interesting."

Dayton Ward said...

A lot of these pointers (and they're good ones!) are great for situations when you have the time to talk to someone at length. Smaller, intimate conventions, for example, where you can spend 30 minutes or more talking to an editor or agent, maybe even over a meal or a drink, or just sitting down somewhere, away from the rest of the hustle/bustle.

What brought my particular concern into focus was this past weekend at Comic-Con. That scenario is nothing like the cons most of us go to. It's like the elevator pitch, but with ten thousand other people in the car with you. You might have 30 seconds to get someone's attention before someone or something else pulls them away. How do you sell yourself (if at all) in that situation?

Part of me wonders if that environment just isn't conducive to such pitching or "selling," but I know it happens, so--to me, at least--the answer is that I need to be better at how I confront that particular situation, which is where some of the other great pointers discussed here can be tailored for that set of circumstances.

A timeout: Thanks to everyone who's offered comments so far. This was one of those pieces where I wasn't hoping to "give" advice so much as get people talking and sharing ideas. It's worked out wonderfully, and that's all on you folks :)

Sunny Frazier said...

Well, Dayton, I don't attend conferences where I know I'll be lost in the crowd unless I'm just there to be entertained. My dollars have to stretch to events where I'm sure to grab some of the spotlight.

You knew going in that Comic Con was going to be a madhouse. Your best bet was smaller conventions in your genre, which I'm sure exist.

At best, I would have tried to make some connections, handed them a card and said, "I know this isn't the time or place, but I would like to email you later with my proposal." Might work.

William Doonan said...

Sunny, a general theme of this string seems to be that some people are less comfortable initiating or joining conversations than others. I don't see anybody debating the importance of it, which is well understood. But someone who is shy in general is going to be less comfortable initiating or engaging in a conversation than someone who is not. The topic of discussion has no bearing on this whatsoever. Whether I am talking about me, my book, or my discipline, my comfort level will not change.

Sunny Frazier said...

And yet, you must have known going into authorship that extending yourself to the world was going to be a requirement. You do yourself a disservice as well as your publisher when you use shyness as an excuse. I think all of us start out nervous in this regard. Watch the pros, fake it until you make it, don't let them see you sweat, just do it. Pick whatever Madison Ave slogan you want.

I think the worthwhile thing that this blog has done is offer suggestions to Dayton, pooled our resources, experience and advice and checked in with each other.

Dayton Ward said...

Actually, I attend shows and cons of all sizes, but for the genres where I do the most work, the larger shows are the place to be. I work with licensed properties on both the fiction and non-fiction side, as well as my own original SF.

So, another lesson seems to be "be better at adapting to whichever environment you find yourself." Easier said than done, but that's usually the case with anything worth doing. :)

marja said...

Okay, I'm going to share a brief story. Went to a conference and met an author I admire. I said I'd been hoping to meet her, and she wanted to know why. Her attitude was like I was stalking her, and I really didn't say more than I'd hoped to meet her. I swear, I'm not an oddball, just your average person. So you never know how someone will take what you say. sigh. She wasn't even a well-known author. Oh well...

Lynn Emery said...

I'm not the social butterfly, go up and start chatting type either. If possible, assemble your posse before going to a conference. At least some of the time y'all can hang out and have fun. That helps me relax and able to chitchat more easily.

Marja, I've had the same thing happen to me; with authors, agents and editors. Which made me reluctant to approach those I don't know unless I'm with a group of friends.

Another good strategy for the group thing, I've been to conferences where my friends and I had so much fun, folks wanted to hang with the "in" crowd. LOL

William Doonan said...

Absolutely not, Sunny, I absolutely do not do myself or my publisher any disservice at all. At no point am I making an excuse. These comments relate not to comfort levels, not ability or willingness. At no point am I suggesting that I am unwilling to talk to people or to promote myself, my discipline, my book, or my thoughts. I simple stated, as did many others in this comment chain, that it's something I work at because it does not come naturally to me.

G. B. Miller said...

I'm kind of strange mix in that I'm very much an extrovert online (or at least try to be) and a introvert in person.

I find it hard to sell myself and my writings to begin, and working for a government agency that has the double minefield of political correctness and hypersensitivity to anything in the real world that isn't skewered to the left, makes it doubly hard to make any traction.

Still, I do try my best in various surroundings to introduce myself, usually with humor, and let people know that I write/blog and have a book coming out.

So far, I've had casual conversations at places like B&N, Staples and the Post Office, in which I was able to sell myself and give away a few business cards of myself and my book cover.

Today (7/21), gonna try hitting the local town festival to see what kind of contacts and/or giveaways I can do to build a readership.

Anonymous said...

Thought-provoking post, and an excellent discussion! After thinking about it, I realize I do two things:

1) I try to look at it not as selling myself, but getting to know other people in the industry. Even if I don't end up "selling" myself or my book, I know there is a lot I can learn from others.
2) I accept my fear, understand others are probably as afraid as I am, and push past it. I remember the saying, "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear."