Do you have the can-do factor?

Reading through Monday morning blog posts, my eye was caught by Clare O’Dea’s post about the narcissistic possibilities of blogging. At the end of the post she proposes a test to check your narcissus score. I know I’m not exactly oozing with ‘can-do’ but was still a bit shocked to find how close to the ocean floor I was crawling. Somewhere between the bit the Titanic’s resting on and the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

I don’t think I am falsely modest about my writing—I believe that it’s good. Not exceptional, not brilliant, but good. In fact it would be pretty strange to go to the trouble of publishing books that I considered to be a load of rubbish. If one of the 40 questions had been ‘Do you reckon you are a good writer?’ I could have answered in the affirmative. One brownie point to me. But there were 40 questions about behaviour, not self-esteem, and I score very low on all the—‘If you’ve got it, do you flaunt it?—type questions. Thinking, in a smug sort of way, well at least I know I’m good, doesn’t get you any marks at all.

Transpose all that into marketing and promotional behaviour and you have, in a nutshell, why some of us writers sink without trace and others, who are not afraid to shout their talent from the rooftops, con(vince) readers they know what they’re talking about and sell thousands of copies.

A case in point. The Dark Citadel was in a best YA fantasy competition. It was beaten by a book that the judges, from their comments, seemed to think verged on perfection. Leaving aside how I feel about my own book’s merits, the winner’s was surprisingly bad—derivative, facile, and in places utterly silly. What struck me as typical of the can-do factor at work was how the author lapped up the praise and took it all in her stride, saying that some of the other books in the contest were pretty good so she was pleased though not surprised to have won, because of course her book was awesome and richly deserved to be awarded first place.

This woman has the ‘can-do’ factor in bucketsful. And in one way at least she deserves success, because she has written a book so many people want to read. It’s very similar to books they have already read and enjoyed, and the silliness comes from writing about a city and a country the author has never visited, but most of her readers won’t have either so who’s to know?

I know that many authors hate to be told that they should be pushing their book as a product, targeting a market and hitting their audience where they hang out with the kind of message that appeals to them specifically. We have a tendency to bristle and reply that selling books in not like selling potatoes or washing machines. We like to think that there is something intrinsically ‘worthy’ about a book that sets it on a higher plane than vulgar vegetables or white goods.

I have come round to the belief that the marketers are right. You can sell any old rubbish as long as you can convince people it’s the rubbish they want. Publicists (sorry) are not in the business of telling gospel truths, they are in the business of persuading people to buy product X in preference to product Y. Product X might be utter crap technically, but the publicist’s skill is in convincing the potential buyer to overlook that unfortunate fact and instead look at other advantages. They might be street cred, the colour of the laces, the woman draped across the bonnet, whatever.

Same with books, I’m afraid. The mass market is not made up of discerning literati—they form only a small percentage and they probably wouldn’t ever look at your book anyway if it’s genre fiction—but of people wanting accessible entertainment. That’s the market most of us are hoping to interest. It isn’t important that, unlike books, you can judge all washing machines using the same criteria. People still ignore the evidence and buy crap washing machines. Conversely, many people do judge a book the way they judge a washing machine, ticking off their own set of criteria.

Selling isn’t about hard facts; it’s about wrapping a product up in an attractive package. If you are lucky enough to have a good publisher, you have a head start in the kudos race and can afford to concentrate on your art. The rest of us have to go down the marketing route with our books or doom ourselves to failure.

I’ll stick to getting my thrills from making a modest few ripples in this big pool.


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Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

30 thoughts on “Do you have the can-do factor?”

  1. Oh, dear, Master Gallacher clocked 18…am not sure if I’m supposed to be embarrassed by that or not, but I agree with Jane that the persona of a writer these days is expected to be a split one… author, then publicist… interesting piece..:)

    1. At 18 you should be up there with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt 🙂 It’s almost as though the ‘job’ of writer has changed. it’s no longer the freezing garret and living for one’s art, it’s creating a Hollywood style razamataz to sell a product. That’s if you want to be a success, of course. If you don’t mind taking a chance with your ability to write a good story, that’s another matter.

  2. Reblogged this on Seumas Gallacher and commented:
    Oh, dear, Master Gallacher clocked 18…am not sure if I’m supposed to be embarrassed by that or not, but I agree with Jane Dougherty that the persona of a writer these days is expected to be a split one… author, then publicist… interesting piece..:)

  3. Great piece Jane, and thanks for pointing me this way Seumas. Everyone says we as writers should please the reader first, but I say deep down you must please yourself, the harshest critic there is, first. If we didn’t like what we wrote we would have backspaced those words into oblivion, but we pleased ourselves first. I like to think that is as ‘can do’ as it gets. 🙂

    1. If by pleasing the reader you mean giving them more of the same, you could be onto a winning streak. It depends how much you value your own creative talent, even if it means very few people will make the effort to read it.

    1. You did better than me anyway 🙂 I’m not sure being narcissistic is good for your personality. Much better to do the best you can, put your work in front of as many people as possible and let them decide if they want to read it.

      1. There are days when the choice is, stay the hell in bed Laurie, that way the world will be a safer place. 🙂 Besides I’m retired and basically do what I want, kind of.

  4. Very interesting reflections on the psychology of self-publishing Jane. Thanks for mentioning my blog! Narcissism has a pretty negative ring to it. Self-belief sounds so much better. As a self-published author you are demonstrating a good measure of self-belief by publishing in the first place.
    But the promotion that comes after that must be an uphill struggle for most people, especially because writing is an introspective activity much more than a look-at-me activity.
    I find Kristen Lamb’s blog very good for motivation and advice. She’s mainly addressing self-published wrtiers. Here’s a link to her latest post.

    1. I believe they are two different things, self-belief and can-do. There are enough writers pushing their very mediochre wares on every social media to prove it. Thanks for the tip, Clare. Sounds like the kind of advice I need 🙂

  5. Some days I am sure I have can-do, but then I have days when it trots off into the distance with my ‘get-up-and-go!
    One thing’s for sure, it doesn’t get any easier…

    1. Ha! I wonder if they aren’t two separate things: self esteem and can-do. You can know when you’ve written something worthwhile and still not be able to shout it from the rooftops. Conversely you can be an absolutely atrocious writer with oodles of self confidence and have no trouble at al boasting about your acheivement.

  6. I think we each settle happily in a pond relative to our size knowing that we’re free to migrate, deep or shallow, as events present themselves. But indeed there are gatekeepers whose salary packages are geared to sales – let them sell their souls while I indulge mine. btw I’ve never sought publication but think you are very brave to do so Jane.

    1. It’s not bravery, it’s simply finishing the job. I’d never have the nerve to publish my poems. Each one has to be justified and I’d never be confident that a whole clutch were good enough for publication. A novel’s a bit different. It takes years to get into a satisfactory state, and once it’s got there you have to publish it or let it die.

  7. It’s depressing to think of our books as products where the consumer is swayed by fancy packaging and persuasive marketing ploys, but I’m afraid that’s where the literary world is headed. Otherwise, how would you be able to explain the popularity of 50 Shades and Twilight?

    Of course you should publish your poetry!!! I’ve often wondered why you hadn’t yet.

    1. I have a horrible feeling it’s the double-edged sword of the self-publishing revolution. On the one hand it has opened up the possibility of getting your book published to hundreds of thousands of writers who would never have got past the gatekkeepers not so long ago. Some great books are available now that would have been lost without self-pub. Unfortunately it has also had the effect of flooding the market with rubbish. There are millions more books to read than there ever were, but are there so many more readers? I can’t believe that there are. Not discriminating readers anyway. Thousands of freebie hunters, cheap and easy readers, but probably not many more people in the market for a good book. Standing out from the mass is like sending up a distress flare in the middle of the Pacific. If you’re bursting with self-confidence and shout loud enough you’ll pick up readers who are influenced by sound bites and clips and just want more of the same.
      Maybe one day I’ll steel myself to doing something with my poems.

  8. I have to still take the test, but your post and the other post were entertaining, and so you keep me from leaving until the last word, is that not what writing is all about. Now let me see if my one small ripple is not lost in the infinity of pebbles being dropped in the Blogosphere. Oh yes, now off to take a test,,,,,,

    1. Do report back with what you scored 🙂 It’s a pretty depressing sort of a test as you seem to get a higher score depending on how full of yourself you are—not generally accepted as ‘nice’ qualities where I come from.

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