Self-promotion: The hardest form of writing

by Suw on May 24, 2023

A statue of a winged herald blowing a trumpetWe all hate doing it. We all worry that others will hate us for doing it. But no one else is going to blow our trumpets for us.

If there’s one type of writing that everyone I know hates, often with a white-hot intensity that could melt iron, it’s anything that even remotely whiffs of self-promotion.

In an ideal world, none of us would have to do self-promotion. We’d go off to our offices or our sheds or our studios, we’d be creative in whatever way we see fit, we’d put our work out into the world, and those people who like it would find it and reward us for the sweat on our brow and the callouses on our hands. We’d never have to tell a soul about our work, because a friend would find out about it by accident and they’d tell their friends, who’d tell their friends, and before we knew it, we’d have a legion of super-fans just waiting for us to release our newest creation for their enjoyment.

Of course, it doesn’t work like that. It’s never worked like that. It’s not even possible for it to work like that.

The reality is that someone, somewhere, has to promote your work. In one model of the world, that work is done by your publisher, record label, gallery or whatever. They pay you for doing the work and then they become responsible for making sure that the public finds out about it, because that is how they make their money. They hire experts in marketing, advertising, and PR so that they can get your work in front of an audience, some of whom will go on to buy your book, record or painting, etc.

In another model of the world, where you are essentially working as a small business, you as the creator are responsible for getting word out about everything that you do. You have to do all the marketing, advertising and PR. And often, in this model of the world, you are not an expert marketer, you do not have the money to buy ads or the contacts to persuade newspapers to feature your work. You just do your best with what you’ve got.

That first model has been slowly breaking down over at least the last decade, so even if you do have a publisher with a marketing department, you as the author are still expected to do quite a bit of your own marketing. The small-business creator and the traditionally-supported creator are now both having to reach out to their communities to say, “Hey, I’ve done a thing. Would you like to look at it?”.

Add to that the fact that previous drivers of traffic – social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter – have been throttling the ability to reach large audiences, and you have a large community of people who are all finding it hard to reach new fans:

[There has been] a massive drop for small publishers. Is it any wonder that smaller local news outlets have seen traffic crater? Imagine getting 1,000 daily page views from Facebook and seeing that drop to 20 over the years. That would be gutting.

Whether you’re the New York Times or an independent author, the impact of this loss of traffic from the major social media sites is not just frustrating, it has a huge impact on the effectiveness of your promotional campaigns. So you need to do more promotion to reach the same number of people. And in the middle of a low wage* crisis, when fewer people have money to spend, you need to reach yet more people to get the same level of business. Which means even more promotion.

In turn, that means posting more often on social media and, yes, perhaps some people will see more of those posts than they like. Whilst that is just how it is now, there will sadly always be a vocal minority getting antsy about it.

They shame us for talking about our work, denigrate us for working hard to build an audience, throw shade on us for posting a link to our book or newsletter or event. And all of that leads to just one outcome: Writer’s self-promotional block.

We feel inferior, we feel ashamed, we feel mortified, we feel scared. We tie ourselves up in knots trying to self-promote without self-promoting. We drop hints, we mention in passing. We hope someone else will tell the world we’re fab, but we feel disappointed when they don’t (when the truth is, they either don’t know what we’re doing or they think we don’t need the help).

Writer’s self-promotional block is a microcosm of other blocks: It’s caused by a fear of public humiliation. We fear that others will judge us and think we are a bad person because they, wrongly, believe that the cream always rises and that all you have to be is good.

There are plenty of those people out there – people who think that they achieved success because of their greatness, not because of any privilege they were born with, luck they accrued during life, or help that others gave them.

“Ah,” they say, “If you just talk to people in a genuine and authentic way, if you just put the hours in being consistently brilliant, then people will gravitate towards you like bees to blossom. If you have to self-promote, you’re clearly not as brilliant as me.”

It’s no wonder we have such trouble bringing ourselves to self-promote, when we’re told that doing so is evidence of our rank inferiority.

But word-of-mouth is unreliable and overhyped. A tiny number of people get lucky; the rest of us just have to work hard and be persistent. Which means that we have to walk towards the fear. We have to talk about our work and invite people to engage with it. We have to take up space and we have to stare down those who would belittle us for doing so.

There are, of course, elephants in the room, and we all know one. There is a minority of people who we feel maybe overdo it, who we feel are perhaps too self-focused, too self-aggrandising. But you know what? The chances are, the person who’s annoying you by talking to much about their stuff is actually in a scarcity trap. They aren’t earning enough money and the only thing they know to do is ramp up the ask instead of increasing the give.

For them, we should have empathy, not judgement. Because any of us can get stuck in a scarcity trap, and we all need help to get out.

So instead of judging ourselves or others for self-promoting, let’s all take a moment to make peace with the process. Self-promotion is unavoidable, so let’s look for ways to make it less painful for ourselves. Share your creativity with joy and excitement. Think about what you’re giving your community instead of always being on the ask. Look for ways to help others, whether that’s by liking or resharing or commenting – everything helps.

We’re all in the same boat, but there are, at least, plenty of oars to go round.


* We are not in a cost of living crisis, we’re in a too many people aren’t paid enough money crisis.

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