My dear Mum, Madge Williams, was a gifted talker and story teller. She’d recall an event in her life, often something in her recent past, but not always, and part way through, her words and thoughts would remind her of something else and we’d be off at a tangent. I think Mum knew that if she stuck to the original story, the side story would become forgotten, and that wouldn’t do as she always had a lot of important things to say. A lot of our family meals were like this, particularly dinner time or lunch. We all like to talk in our family, but Mum had a need to be central to a discussion. And, that was okay; she was good at it and we loved her for all the things that made her who she was.
Before long of course, we’d have all finished our meals and Mum was still going. She knew why she was always the last to finish her plate and it gave her the chance to savour her food and the moment, being in the company of friends and loved ones. Never one to eat quickly was our Mum and the dinner table was the perfect setting for her to get people’s attention and she liked that time of day. At the end of the story, she’d have told you five others, finally remembering the point of the original tale. My blog today is a bit like that, but it has a point and it bears to writing and where I am at the moment, wanting to sell my work. So please bear with me. You’ll get the point, and understand the title of the post, but only when you get to the end.
Anyway, to the subject of the post before I leave everyone.
Today, I want to write about being famous, being in the public eye, even though I have little experience here, only observations. I am still learning my craft and can only hope that as I improve, so will the number of people who like what I do as a writer and, in exchange, I get the affirmation all writers strive to get. Money too in the longer term, but affirmation will do in the interim.
When I think of famous people, I generally think of artists, people who make their living through the visual arts – painters, sculptors, actors, television personalities, models, photographers, journalists, even sports stars. I don’t immediately think of writers. Many writers are famous people, even if they are in the rarefied 1 per cent of published writers, but a lot of them are pretty much invisible to most of us. They might pose for a photograph for their book or author site, but their images are rarely shown on television and magazines. There are exceptions, but writers tend to lie low, leaving their written work to do the talking.
So what are the chief characteristics of an artist? Are writers artists and do writers need to be visible and in the public eye to qualify, or is our writing sufficient to place us in the group we call artists?
The written word, when read, often paints a picture for us. I know when I read a story, my imagination creates images in my head as I read. The better the writer, the clearer the image. Hence, writers are encourage to “show, don’t tell”. When I researched this, there were plenty of people who argue otherwise, that writers aren’t artists. But I firmly believe that, given the visualisation that readers experience when they read a scene, hell yes, writers are artists.
Apart from artists, there are other famous people, those we describe as being in public life, and political figures come to mind. You could even argue that our politicians are artists, as they are often in acting mode when they are working, many of them quite different in public from the private person they portray to their friends and loved ones. A recent commentator I heard on the ABC said that Australia’s former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, talked about going home and pulling up he draw bridge, implying that her private life was hidden from view, as it should be. But, it also paints an image of a person who could lower her defences when she was in her own home, someone who could be their true self, out of the public eye.
Whether you are Prime Minister or not, I suspect we all change from our true self when we are working. We put on a suit or a nice outfit, men shave, women put on makeup. And, I reckon we all try to put on an act in public to be someone we are not. Indeed many of us, me included, attempt to be more extroverted when we are actually introverts.
For politicians, they need the public to vote for them, need to be out there in the public eye, getting publicity so that voters can make an informed choice about which candidate best aligns with their set of values and priorities. The ones who do this well are polished performers. But, whether you agree or not that we are all actors, there is one common theme among all people who seek fame, or get fame even when they think they don’t want it; we need the public to like our work, to like us or to identify with us, in order to earn good money from what we do.
So, why do people seek publicity and agree to expose themselves and their private life for us to consume? I would argue they do it for power and affirmation, but many are also motivated by money. Being in public life can pay, especially if you are unique, unusual, remarkable even. My perfect example of the remarkable person is Paris Hilton. Paris was born within a super wealthy family and was often referred to as an heiress, sometimes a socialite, but the former term emphasised her wealth and we like to read about the wealthy.
Yet Paris, love her or hate her, had her own money by the age of 21 and used her remarkableness, her beauty no doubt, and her talent – you’ve got to give her that – to build a career, an empire of things that people wanted to buy, including her life. Whether what we’ve been buying (and I have no experience here) was her image, her perfume or her story, her strategy has been to get her face and her life into the media and to stay there. According to one source, revenues from her Company have earned her more than $1bn since 2005. So for some, fame certainly does pay.
Nonetheless, for the remarkable people, the beautiful and talented, such business strategies necessarily involve the press, the paparazzi, stalking your every move, hunting for that picture or that bi-line because the public wants to know what you do; we have a fascination with the private and public lives of such people. Your image and your life, particularly if it involves scandal or scuttlebutt, becomes a commodity, which can be bought and sold. And many famous people need this constant exposure to remain relevant in the eyes of their fans and the public.
Writers are a bit different. Most of the successful writers can walk down the street without being recognised. I’ve seen Lee Child’s photo, but unless Lee is constantly being filmed and photographed, his image, his face is largely unknown to most of us. He can be famous and still live under the radar, just like the rest of us. Successful actors and singers can’t enjoy the same level of anonymity as their image is part of the deal, part of what they must sell in order to do their craft and earn their living.
We can see this dynamic, this reality, in film, television and music. If you want your work, your art, to sell and, hence, to be purchased, then there is a quid pro quo. Film stars are a good example. They know that they can’t just do the movie and then return home, out of the public eye, if they want their work to sell well. There are exceptions of course, but such people are usually referred to as reclusive and reclusive actors don’t generally do as well as those who strive to be in the public eye.
While many writers want to write and publish their work for the pure satisfaction of having it read, most of us want to be paid for the work and time we expend in getting our books into public land, being published. I have spoken to a few writers about this; indeed I participated in a private debate with a number of fellow authors just recently. Some of them just want to write. “Publicity, sales of my book, are the publisher’s responsibility” was one view. I also see this in Author Facebook sites, where they are just destinations to like, rather than public sites of the author where you can post a comment. We all fear criticism, but I’m not going to change my Facebook site to one where only I can make comments. You just have to be prepared to take the good with the bad, in my view at least.
For me, sales of my novels are a partnership with my Publisher and Literary Agent; a Publicist if I can afford one. Sure, I have a website and am on social media, but I’m not a celebrity and these are really passive sales techniques. My Publisher will spend some real money on marketing, but not to the extent that the big publishing houses do with their exclusive sales channels and contracts with the big bricks and mortar bookstores. So, I have to work twice as hard. Real selling involves getting your novel into the minds of potential readers, people you don’t know who are willing to shell out their hard earned in the expectation that they will be entertained for a few hours. This requires me morph from writing to selling; getting publicity through the media, identifying and seducing sponsors, encouraging readers to post their reviews where others will see them, spending my own money on road shows and book signings. Exposing myself in ways that simply aren’t comfortable for many of us, including me.
I now write for a living, but I must also be a salesman if I am to achieve fame and longevity in this business.
This isn’t Field of Dreams, “write it and they will come.” This is real life and they will only come if I make a sale.
Thanks for reading. I hope you read one of my books and are entertained, Chris