Before the pandemic, I was seated on a panel with a bunch of colleagues speaking to an audience of about 200 savvy genre readers. As often happens at the end of such events, the organizers took questions from the audience who good-naturedly kept the conversation going and flowing. Naturally, someone asked the authors, “What are you each reading right now?”
That’s a perennial go-to on panels. Especially in today’s marketplace, readers are desperate to find writers worth their time and eyeballs. Of course they’re going to ask a room full of authors what books and voices are always worth the investment. This question comes up in at least 75% of panels that find the time because readers want to ask something and this one’s a no-brainer.
In this instance, the question wended its way along the table until it reached a once-bestselling author who was unexpectedly stumped. After a long pause she finally admitted that between a relentless writing schedule and personal pickiness, the only recommendable books that leapt to mind were…her own.
I don’t know if I can convey fully the awkward, frozen discomfort of the panelists and the audience: our absolute awareness of her blank arrogance, her casual disregard for the genre, her passive aggressive humblebrag, her snide condescension towards all the “rubes” in the room who bothered to read these books we had all gathered to celebrate. I can’t remember if someone actually gasped, but I do know that the riveted silence was chilling.
Even she seemed aware of her gaffe, but she hummed and huffed and blustered through a self-serving pimpage of her dusty backlist as the “only books” she thought worth reading while everyone looked at their shoes. These thirty seconds were actually the worst bit. Having stuck her foot in it, she tripled down.
Of course, she didn’t read anyone else. Of course, hers were the only books in the category worth reading. Of course, publishing was unfair and she never got taken seriously, dammit.
Gack. Don’t do this. Ever. Yes, you write books, but you are only one flower in the garden.
Unsurprisingly, she didn’t sell any copies for the signing after. The irony? Her whole purpose for appearing on this panel was rebranding…to freshen her image and remind readers she was still relevant. Publicists, editors, and agents in the room took note, let me tell you and it immediately became a clickbaity story for bloggers thrilled to have an easy target. Writers in other countries texted me the next day to get the full story because the episode had made the rounds within minutes. Caveat scriptor. Your ambition shouldn’t be to serve as a warning for others.
Pro tip: recommending your own work to people is not promo. In fact, recommending your own work often repels readers because it signals your desperation, naked self-interest, and/
This “big name” author’s public “unrecommendation” on the panel was uncomfortable for the whole room, but it wasn’t a one-off…in fact since the aforementioned incident, this paralyzed non-answer to a common query seems to be growing like an infectious trend in our overwhelmed industry.
Several times over the past few years I’ve been at events or on panels where an audience member asks, “What have you read recently that you loved?” only for colleagues to shrug or roll their eyes or groan in comic misery at the futility of all books but theirs. In the same vein, a second tier cop-out is the recommendation of acknowledged classics that the room already rereads on the regular.
Shelves are glutted with titles and apparently some publishing pros don’t bother to read very much.
To my mind, every one of those unrecommending authors who can’t muster a credible answer leaves good will and money on the table. They KNOW the inevitable question is coming, but they can’t be bothered to find an answer? Bizarre. Seriously? Irony of ironies, these same people rail against the coverage they aren’t getting and the discoverability they can’t access.
Why-why-why don’t these folks get any positive word of mouth when they need it? It’s a mystery.
Whether intentionally or not, that apparent ignorance, reticence, and solipsism traps unrecommenders inside an unfriendly ungenerous bubble…as if authors are too precious and petty to dirty their hands with their colleague’s work…as if the mountain of new books released every day contains nothing worth noticing save theirs. Either…
- They “never” read in their genre or subgenre.
- They’re simply “too swamped” to keep up with the state of their genre.
- They’ve decided every other book is not worth their time. (eek!)
More importantly, book recommendations are the number one way that books get sold…period, the end, amen. Word of mouth is and always will be the supreme promotional engine. By removing yourself from that flow you not only do yourself a disservice, you hamper the growth of your entire subgenre.
It behooves all of us to stretch and grow as often as we are able. How on earth can you keep abreast of the world around your books if you never look? I agree that scattershot intake can muddle and muddy your work, but the colossal effort required to maintain complete and adamant ignorance of how the genre is evolving will do you no favors in the long run.
Audiences are overwhelmed with choices right now, not just in books, but in entertainment. People insist they can’t find books worth reading. Why not help them navigate the tsunami? Not only does it help your audience, it helps your industry with almost zero effort because all it costs you is attention and enthusiasm. Fans will ask you, over and over. We’re writers! Passion is catching.
And it’s not all selfless, yo. Spreading the good word is smart promotional activity, because the pleasure those books bring to readers gets tangled with their feelings about the person who made the rec. Win-win-win.
Plenty of authors spend a large portion of their social media time doing nothing but advocating for books they admire. Personally, two-thirds of my “discovered” titles come from passionate recs by Eloisa James, Heidi Cullinan, Sherry Thomas, Sarah Morgan, Amy Lane, Catherine Bybee, Cindy Dees, Kate McMurray, Lorelei James, Melinda Leigh, Vivian Arendt, J.R. Ward, Eliana West, Joey W. Hill, Lyla Bellatas, Mariana Zapata, and too many more to name. These authors make a joyful ruckus about books they adore and over time folks have learned to trust them implicitly…as a mitzvah that trust helps bolsters our industry, as a promo policy that trust translates into fan loyalty and audience development.
Please note: passionate recommenders aren’t simply blurbing releases or boosting books during a targeted launch, they’re boosting books they’ve read and adored at the moment they read and adored them, sometimes years after the release. They’re sharing hope and joy with the folks paying attention to this genre which is our livelihood. And consequently, folks pay attention to them as genre voices.
Teach fans and colleagues that you know the turf, have a generous eye, and that your opinion matters. The dividends can be extreme.
Boosting talented, visionary, and unknown authors helps them pay the bills and keep weaving magic. Championing beautiful, startling, difficult books gives them the chance to survive and thrive. Celebrating the wide, wild possibilities around us teaches us to stretch ourselves and challenge our readers in the best ways.
Writers read. At some point, we all need to go to the well and discover where we’re going right and wrong, what the readers love and loathe, and how we might grow as artists and professionals.
- What are the books RIGHT NOW which you consider to be must-read, genre advancing masterpieces?
- Who are the classic authors that established the landscape we are all lucky to inhabit in the genre?
- Who are your comp titles and bookshelf neighbors?
We grow as artists and as a collective industry. The unwillingness to sample what’s going on around you on the shelves has wider implications because if you don’t keep an eye on the horizon, you can walk off a cliff.
At a recent writers roundtable, I overheard a group of experienced authors discussing work and worries when a couple of older pros announced they never bothered with craft or research classes related to their genres because they’d already published books…as in, anything they needed to know, they already knew.
Say what?! I call foul.
Yes, we’re all are busy and deadlines devour free time, but genres evolve and shift on the regular. The industry is not sealed in aspic and sitting on your asterisks waiting for the world to cycle back to where it was when you started is a perfectly ridiculous way to evolve. Plenty of over-scheduled, bestselling authors hit craft workshops and guides whenever they can steal a minute. Your technical questions and awareness may shift, but part of being an artist is growing and improving.
We learn this from biology, when an organism stops growing it starts to die.
Here’s an easy solution to a question that will come before you from fans and journos. Find an answer before you need it, and keep freshening it on the regular. Developing that answer will keep you in touch with what’s happening in your genre and at its unruly margins. Ideally you should be able to name at least one of these:
- One unknown title by a talented up-n-comer who has never made a list.
- One rediscovered classic on the genre that might not get the attention it deserves.
- One “inclusive” title that challenges stereotypes and assumptions with characters who don’t look, love, or laugh like you.
And bonus points if you can name several of these in different categories and subgenres. You’re not going to use all of them all the time, but having three options on the tip of your tongue will prevent embarrassing nonsense.
And just FYI, current bestsellers are the laziest way out. Nobody needs you to recommend whatever they already have in their TBR pile, so those are a blatant buck-pass that don’t begin to meet the brief. Yes you should know those books as a professional in the same stretch of shelf, but extend your awareness beyond your fences.
These books don’t have to be technically perfect or financially successful, but they have to inspire you, make you enthusiastic, and/
Don’t know where to find great books worth recommending? You’ve got work to do! Ask writers and industry professionals you trust. Look to librarians and vendors who have their finger on the pulse. Talk to people online at the grocery store or picking up the kids after practice. Use social media to follow the librarians and vendors of the year, because every one of them is a proud and passionate advocate for genre fiction in all its multifarious glory.
How can you know what’s happening around you if you don’t look? Once you signal that you’re in the market for miraculous books, serious readers will oblige. Brilliant books are out there waiting to be unearthed from a mountain of dross; get your shovel and start digging.
If some pitiful, whiny, treacherous passive-aggressive part of you starts to gripe that you just don’t have enough tiiiiiime, please remember and repeat those wheedling complaints out loud to yourself the next time you have a release and no one is paying attention to your demands on their goodwill. Do unto others, and all that.
You can exacerbate the problem or support the solution. Your choice, natch. But the best way to develop bandwidth is with steady generosity over long stretches of time.
The next time publishers or agents ask you where you fit on the genre shelf, you’ll know how to answer them. If marketers or journalists ask you for comp titles, you can offer more than a blank stare. When editors point out your ruts and rubble, you may surprise yourself with creative solutions that push the margins of possibility…because you know what’s happening around you in the industry and what hasn’t been tried.
Even better, you can make those recommendations and boost talented writers at any stage of your career. Eyeballs are almost impossible to come by easily these days. Just by paying attention, you pay it forward.