The Hard Sell Doesn’t Work, Redux

Thank YouThis is a (re-edited) post from Sept 2006; one I lost when the site was hacked. Fortunately, I had a partial backup, and since Skyla Dawn Cameron mentioned this post to me in conversation lately, I thought I’d put it back out there, especially since it’s my day to crosspost to the Deadline Dames. Enjoy.

I thought for a while about even mentioning this. No, really, I did–second thoughts are rare and wonderful things for me, but I do occastionally have them. The benefit of this kind of advice to new authors is infinite, though one suspects those who need it won’t dig it until it’s too late.

The advice I have to give is this: Relax. Because the hard sell doesn’t work.

I’ve noticed this at conventions and signings galore. The new author, excited and happy, is pitching his/her book to everyone in sight. S/he assumes that because s/he is excited, that all the rest of us cannot wait to hear about his/her novel/screenplay/short story/idea/self. A little bit of this enthusiasm is good, it makes one’s eyes sparkle and one’s cheeks flush. You can’t help but be excited about your own work–if you’re not, you should find another career.

But beware the hard sell.

The hard sell is filling the airwaves with your self-promotion. It’s consistently talking over other people to get your idea heard. It’s bringing the discussion around to you and your work every time you open your big mouth. It’s being so “cool” you literally don’t care about anyone who doesn’t register on your celebrity radar.

It’s annoying. And it will lose you so many friends and opportunities it’s not even funny.

Publishing is really a small business. You never know when the person you’re rude to on a convention panel or in an elevator at a trade show may hold the power of life or death over your wee manuscript in the future. It’s best to be tactful and interested in other people at cons and shows, not to mention writer’s group meetings. (If you should bother to go to such things.) You don’t have to be completely self-effacing–you can network until the cows come home and talk shop until you’re blue in the face.

But don’t use the hard sell.

I’m going to give two instances of the hard sell, suitably embellished and altered to protect the innocent and the guilty alike. Ready?

* Instance Number One There’s a certain small press–let’s call it Hip Press–gathering critical praise for taking risks with horror and fantasy manuscripts. They publish some interesting stuff and their covers are good…but before an author submits to them, he asks around and finds out they suffer from a serious case of “I’m cooler than you.” The managing editor (or the person impersonating him at conventions and trade shows) has rapidly acquired a reputation for snubbing authors that don’t fit his definition of “hip” or “groundbreaking” enough. Which would be fine…except Too-Hip Editor is openly rude when he snubs. He ends up sneering both publicly and online at several paranormal authors, who quietly tell their friends in the biz (including their agents) that they won’t submit to Hip Press, since working with this man will almost certainly turn into a nightmare. The press struggles with low submissions quality (and, let’s be honest, indifferent accounting too was a symptom of said “coolness”) and finally folds, and nobody will say out loud why. The answer is simple–Too-Hip Editor cut his baby off at the knees by doing the hard sell–“my press is so cool we won’t publish you/ don’t need to use good business practices.” He was so interested in his own “coolness” he shot himself in the foot professionally.

* Instance Number Two Imagine, if you will, a new author (let’s call her Z) at a convention. She’s just beginning to break out and is attending a number of panels. Z is so excited about her book she brings mountains of promo material, and everything that escapes her mouth in the panels is about how wonderful she and her books are. It doesn’t matter what the subject of the panel is–Z is quite frankly all about Z and Z’s books, and devil take the hindmost. After a particular panel Z approaches a midlist author and makes her pitch for a collaboration. The midlist author listens politely and says something vague, then disappears. Z waits after the con for the people she exchanged business cards with to call or email, and sends emails to the midlist author reminding her of Z’s presence. There is no response, and Z’s frustration grows. In response, she tries pushing her books even harder, but suddenly conventions are full and she can barely score a panel or a signing to save her life. Unbeknownst to herself, Z’s behavior has been passed around by several midlist authors and con organizers, and she’s acquired the reputation of a blowhard. Nobody wants to hang with her, and she grows more and more frustrated.

Writing is not generally thought of as a social art. One of the biggest complaints one will hear from writers is that they must spend almost as much time marketing as writing. Done correctly, marketing and networking can be a boon and help grow your career. To be an author means one has to get along with editors, publishers, agents, fans, booksellers, and God knows who else, including convention staff. That’s a lot of people to get along with, not to mention other authors, who may struggle with the same issues and be dying to talk shop with someone who understands.

Yet so many starting authors commit two great sins: they only flog one manuscript and they don’t know how to get along in a professional-social capability. The former belongs in another blog post, but the latter is what this post is all about.

Getting along professionally-socially is an art more than a science, and it’s made more difficult by the fact that publishing is such a bloody incestuous business. You will meet everyone once or twice in your career at least. Your gaffes will follow you like crows follow the gibbet. Your offenses will be spoken of with relish and your coups may be envied. The hard sell is the number one mistake I see new writers making in that capacity.

So here’s a few tips and pointers to help you along, if you suspect you may have inadvertently tippled into hard sell territory.

* Write nice thank-you notes. In your thank-you notes, talk more about the other person than you do about yourself.

* When you are on a convention panel, mention your work’s title at the beginning when you are introduced. Then let it go. Don’t mention the title again unless it’s truly relevant to the panel and the discussion at hand.

* Study arbitration and counseling techniques. Don’t say, “You’re an idiot” to someone. Say, instead, “I disagree because ___” or “It’s my perception that ____.” Not only will this avoid the hard sell, but it will make you look good, especially on a panel.

* Be polite to everyone. It’s hard, especially when you’ve had a six-hour plane flight and baggage problems and now you’re at dinner with someone who keeps yammering about their newest success. Make the effort to be polite and to care. You never know.

*Try to be just as interested in other people as you are in yourself. Yes, this is hard for every single human being. But just try it. And be as happy for others’ success as you are for your own. There really is enough success to go round. Suzie Sue’s success will not steal readers from you. Your own idiocy will steal readers from you, not Suzie Sue’s new book.

* If you meet a famous author or one of your personal heroes, thank them kindly for their good work and fine example. Tell them in one sentence or less how much their work means to you. Do not mention your books/screenplays/novels until they ask–which they probably will, especially if you say, “Your work helped me continue writing. Thank you so much.” They have people trying to pitch crap to them all day long. Don’t do it. Your time will come.

* When you are on a convention panel, limit yourself to one or two promo items. A cover illustration and a stack of bookmarks works just fine. A cluttered pile of promo material makes you look desperate.

* If you don’t have a valid question while you’re in a panel audience, keep your trap shut. The panelists are there because someone wants to hear their opinions. Do not use your opportunity to ask a question to do a cheap shill for your unpublished manuscript. It’s rude, and people do remember these things.

* Do not get drunk with fellow authors unless/until you have a personal as well as a professional relationship with them. I would say, don’t get drunk with fellow authors AT ALL, but I’ve broken that rule once or twice, with my writing partner… *grin*

* If you find yourself saying, “I know you don’t publish _____, BUT–“, for the love of God, stop. Take a deep breath. Back away from the pitch and go soak your head. That one sentence causes new writers untold amounts of grief. If you find yourself using it, you should rethink your strategy a bit.

* Be polite. Be polite. BE POLITE. Say please and thank you. Wait your turn. You may occasionally (or frequently) be run over by someone who is using the hard sell. It’s frustrating, but it’s okay. The person still using the hard sell will make your patience, forbearance, and politeness look ever so much better. Do not be discouraged if you don’t get a chance to talk to a celebrity. Console yourself with the thought that when you do finally manage to speak to a celeb or a famous author, your politeness will be a welcome relief for them, and may lead to good things.

* Be careful where you gossip. Yes, scuttlebutt travels fast in the publishing industry. But don’t go around gossiping indiscriminately. You’ll hear more if you keep your mouth shut, and when you do decide to drop a quiet word of warning to a fellow industry person, it will carry more weight.

* Last but certainly not least, use a little common sense. A pinch of sense goes a long way in this biz. You will find more friends and make more connections that endure with politeness than you ever will with the hard sell.

I suspect those moved to read this don’t need the advice, but just in case, there it is. Is there any common hard-sell tactic I’ve missed?

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Fortunately (sort of), this is not anything I have a problem with. My difficulty is the opposite in that I am terrible at self-promotion; the most likely scenario is sitting quietly in a corner with my fingers crossed hoping for the best in terms of public awareness and sales.

Obviously, this tactic is not terrible efficacious. There needs to be a balance between hard-sell and optimistic silence, but how does one find that balance when one plays badly when blowing one’s own horn?


I think the key to this is playing the long game and finding the stuff you can do that doesn’t tear you up with anxiety. The Internet is really a boon, because you can start producing content and engaging in conversation, and a core fanbase will happen pretty much on its own. Then you can quietly practice a few “blow my own horn” things. Anything you do should be 90-95% real content and 5-10% marketing. (10% is a maximum, and it’s awful high.) I do school class visits and sometimes signings, and I did conventions for a little while before… Read more »

Dina James
Dina James

I never get tired of this post! Thank you for resurrecting it!

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