Schonthaler: How to Sell an Author

So I mentioned a couple weeks back that I’d been to a talk by Neil Gaiman. He was in town, and – I don’t normally go to writer’s talks, that sort of thing. I don’t object to them, it’s just a phase that I grew out of. I don’t need to hear Margaret Atwood’s thoughts on the Dalai Lama. Not any more, anyway. There was definitely a time in my life where I had a list of favourite authors and I planned to buy all their books and hung off every word – but it’s a very college stage, and I’m well past it now. I haven’t really had that attitude towards any author since – well, since Neil Gaiman.

The night was very much a blast from the past. I’d been up sick in the early morning, and I was running on about four hours sleep. I’d just found out that my amazing boss was leaving to start a new job, we were most of the way through the process of moving house, and I was probably also a little hung over. In the midst of all that, it was nice to hear a familiar voice. He talked about Sandman, and Lovecraft, and Amanda Palmer was there, and she shouted ‘Bingo!’ after he mentioned Terry Pratchett. Here’s a funny little biographical detail – eight years ago, a friend and I ran a Neil Gaiman fan blog, and he was our eighth follower, and I screamed when I saw and it upset my mum. And, as I said the other week, when I left the theater I had a bit of a think about my life, and I decided I needed to read more fiction, just to enjoy it. I don’t think I’d been giving myself permission to do that.

Oh, Schonthaler. In the vignette ‘The Lonely Chamber’, in his Portrait of the Manager as a Young Author, Philipp Schonthaler talks about how authors have to become storytelling managers. They have to market themselves – not just their books, but themselves as Authors of books. It’s part of what Schonthaler calls a “strategic personalization of the book market,” which he says results from “the struggle for attention in a market whose extensive supply far outstrips demand.” By bringing authors to the fore, you’re not just getting a book, you’re also getting a whole second narrative about who the writer is and what their intentions are and – there’s a whole marketing dimension wrapped up in all of it. It’s not a new idea, but I was struck by Schonthaler’s point that writers, in particular, use the tools of their trade (ie words) to sell their trade. They tell stories about their stories, about their writing process, about their identity and inspiration.

In some ways, that’s sort of why I was a bit ambivalent about the Neil Gaiman talk, at least going in. It felt like a puff piece, like a clever bit of marketing where we, the chumps, paid for the privilege of watching an author self-mythologise. I remember thinking – what the fuck is he going to talk about? It won’t be anything informative, it’ll just be a bunch of performance (I was still on the non-fiction kick – the only valid talk is a lecture). And the interviewer’s first question was ‘What do you think is the value of stories?’ And I groaned, and my already queasy stomach gurgled threateningly. And then – I don’t know man, fucking Neil Gaiman. He just got me. I love his voice. I hate his voice, because it does a bunch of things that I wish mine could do, but – he’s just really fucking good. I had a great night. I decided to read more fiction. I had been reading all this non-fiction, biographies and histories and so on, and I think the night reminded me that sometimes stories can just be good in themselves. You can read about 20th century Egyptian leaders and learn more about Middle Eastern politics, and that’s fine, but then sometimes you can also just listen to Neil Gaiman read a children’s story about pirate stew.

Really, part of what Schonthaler is suggesting is that the phenomenon of celebrity authors, what he calls “strategic personalization,” is similar to the storytelling that authors do in the first place. It’s worth thinking about how we distinguish one type of commercial storytelling (ie authors selling books to make a living) from another (authors telling stories about themselves to help sell books and make a living). And then how in turn do we distinguish those types of commercial storytelling from, you know, marketing? A lot of the conversations that I’ve seen around this point are hinged on a romantic notion of literature as this grand, noble pursuit, while marketers are portrayed as greedy corporates in it for the cash. It’s an explanation that’s too simple, on both counts. Authors need to get paid. Marketers can have lofty ideals. When John Sculley, then head of Pepsi, was recruited by Steve Jobs to be the new CEO of Apple, Jobs won him over with the famous line “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or come with me and change the world?”

Schonthaler actually talks about this line extensively in his book. In his reading, it’s an emperor’s new clothes moment used to distract from a second tier of marketing. It pulls back the curtain on marketing, and then uses it in service of a different product. Pepsi’s just sugar water, but Apple can change the world. Marketing is fake and silly, but my product – wow, it matters. It’s all still marketing. However, that’s not to say it’s necessarily untrue. Apple did change the world, and – arguably more importantly – a lot of people attach part of their identity to that specific product line. It’s the same for celebrity authors. For a number of years, my identity involved being a Fan of Neil Gaiman, Famous Author. Selling me tickets to a Neil Gaiman talk is really easy. And I think part of my mindset going in was – well, should this still be part of my identity? Is it actually going to be good, or am I paying to be a part of something I don’t genuinely care about? The only thing that’s changed in that equation is me. I’m older, I’ve matured, and I’m re-evaluating whether or not that’s still something I want to be important in my life. I’m re-evaluating whether it’s any good. Turns out, Neil Gaiman’s still a great storyteller. I’m happy I went. The event encouraged me to make some positive changes – part of my identity now (the fiction-reading part) can be traced back to that event. It was marketing, in a sense, sure, but it was also hearing stories from a master storyteller. It encouraged me to believe more in the power of a good story.

Stories and marketing, then, continue intertwined. As Schonthaler notes, even remoteness from the marketplace isn’t a non-economic decision. Rather, it’s an aesthetic decision, a marketing decision, that can result in market success for authors who pull it off (Schonthaler cites the reclusive Pyncheon as a key example here). It’s still part of the author’s brand, part of the story they’re telling about themselves and their work. By looking specifically at how authors have their own marketing mechanisms, Schonthaler sets up a nice point of comparison for us. The proximity of those two types of story helps to crystallize some of the differences and similarities. It also in some ways makes things harder. If we’re okay with authors selling stories, are we okay with authors selling stories about themselves? And if we’re okay with authors selling stories about themselves, are we okay with people selling stories about the author on the author’s behalf? And if we’re okay with that, are we okay with people selling stories about multinational corporations? How do we theorise or understand the distinctions within that spectrum? What’s the difference? I’ll leave it up to you.

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