But only if you think it is.
Like many of my stories, this one has a front end (the present) and a back (the past.) I’ll start with the past.
I was living in a fifth floor walkup in the scary northern tip of Manhattan, trying to get someone—anyone!— to pay me to write music. For over a year I schlepped the long way downtown on the A Train to meet potential buyers, my demo tape clutched in sweaty palms and my gut in the vise-grip of terror. The nest egg I’d accumulated on rock-and-roll tours dwindled. I only stayed alive thanks to my girlfriend up in Connecticut, who fed me on weekends.
I finally found someone who paid me to compose. As such things go, I soon found another, then another, until I was on my way to nice career. But periodically, I still had to sell people on my music. And despite my success, I still hated the selling. Hated sitting in someone’s office as my tape played, watching someone’s deadpan face for signs of approval as they stared out some corporate window.
I had good reason to loath that experience. I’d invested my music with deep, even intimate feelings. And there I sat before a stranger, those feelings revealing themselves in sound.I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so vulnerable.
When we speak of artists selling their art, its often phrased as “selling yourself.” That’s a mistaken notion, and sadly one that artists themselves often have. Even if we invest our work with our deepest thoughts and feelings, it isn’t us. As we create our art and it makes its way out into the world, we are always separate from it, autonomous, breathing creatures. Whether someone loves it or hates it doesn’t alter that fact. But it doesn’t feel that way.
What we fear most is rejection. For those of us who experienced less than perfect parenting, the rejection of our art can feel personal. Existential, even.
My first novel was published at the end of January. It became immediately obvious that if I wanted anyone other than friends and family to read it, I would have to market it. And unlike my music, which I hawked to a limited set of gatekeepers, I was going to have to take on the public. The enormous, anonymous (and therefore inscrutable) public.
The prospect was terrifying. And my marketing chops were rusty. I’d been living lazy on royalties and hadn’t sold so much as a guitar pick in years.
But a funny thing happened on the way to that Artist’s Special Hell of selling your art. To my great surprise, I started enjoying it.
The first moment of this joy came when I was walking our puppy at the dog park. I asked a woman there what kind of books she reads.
“Funny, that’s what I write. And I just published one…”
She not only bought my novel, but gave it a positive review on Amazon. The whole process had been…fun. And as it unfolded, I saw a rare part of my personality emerging—the public part. I’m usually your typical writer, living the life of a hermit, rarely seeing people. As I marketed my book that started changing, and I didn’t mind it at all.
I have no idea how to market my book. The internet has a about twenty million ideas, and I’ve been sifting through them, trying to get a clue about what would make people want to buy. What I’ve found is that I need to try stuff. Do stuff, and see what happens.
So I’ve been doing stuff. I heard from a fellow thriller writer from the UK and he sent me a bunch of links and before I knew it I was on his Instagram page. What the hell was Instagram? I started digging into it. I posted some pictures, got some likes, and started discovering book bloggers.
Another writer told me about Medium.com. I went there, set up an account and started posting. The editors picked up one of my pieces. So I went to my moribund Twitter account and…tweeted about it.
What I’m trying to illustrate here is that I was doing stuff on the fly, making quick decisions and letting my freak flag fly—the one that flies from the lateral thinking, creative part of my brain. And damn if it didn’t feel good.
As I dug into Instagram I found it to be a mystery—a complicated, convoluted puzzle. Like all puzzles, I wanted to solve it. I had to laugh. What had compelled me to write my mystery/thrillers in the first place, but my love of unsolved mysteries? And what greater mystery is there today than that of social media?
One of the reasons the prospect of marketing my book was so daunting was that I was taking the wrong approach—that of a producer. I spent years producing bands, then years producing library music CDs. And my books are productions.
Good producers are worriers. Whether it’s recordings or novels that they’re producing, they agonize over every chord, every clause. They worry half the day and more than half the night. And they project their fears into the future. What could go wrong down the road, when it comes time to mix this song, or when the story approaches its denouement?
If you’re among a million other writers trying to get your pages in front of readers, there’s no time to worry.
Which gets back to my title—the idea that marketing art is only hell if you think it is. I’ve always seen myself as a glass-half-empty guy. It’s only recently that I’ve been hearing about exciting advances in neuroscience that suggest we’re all that way as a species, and have evolved that way for very good reasons. But that we can also change.
As a writer trying to get my book read, I’m holding a very empty glass. But as long as I keep pouring stuff into it—pouring it fast, without worrying too much about it—I forget that the glass is so empty. And as long as I don’t dwell on that, I have the energy to keep pouring.
And the faith that if I don’t stop pouring, eventually it will be full.