Guest Post: Debut Author Lessons–How to deal with self-promotion and award season

by Mary Robinette Kowal

Let’s talk about self-promotion and how it feels icky.

Yes, self-promotion is awkward to do the first time. Yes, it is very easy to do badly. But–it is incredibly important to your career. Someone asked, “Isn’t it enough to write a good story?”


A brilliant story? Okay, that’ll probably get some notice on its own, but think about the number of good stories you read. Think about how many of them don’t get on the ballot. The ones that do are the ones that are visible. You are the first cheerleader for your story/novel/performance art. If you love it enough to write it, submit it, and accept money for it… why don’t you love it enough to tell other people the story is out there?

Probably because you’re afraid of coming off as a pompous jerk, or an ass, or you’ve seen the person who is a complete bore and don’t want to be that person.

So… here are some tricks on how to avoid looking like an ass:

  • Ask people about what they are working on, first. And be interested, not just patient.
  • Remember the wonder. If you can retain that sense of “OMG! This is amazing that I sold/published/did this.” People will be charmed and excited for you.
  • Have a change of topic prepared, so you don’t spend the entire day talking about yourself
  • Have an educational component in there. Like I’m doing right now… Seriously, if you can talk about how you got to the place you are at, so that other people can try the same path, folks like that.
  • Don’t harp on it. Make your announcement once at the beginning of awards season and once as nominations wind down.
  • Don’t say “Vote for me!” It sounds desperate. All you need to do is let people know the work exists.
  • Talk about other and multiple things you are passionate about. Otherwise, people will avoid you because you only talk about one topic.
  • Promote other people. First of all, it’s nice. Second, it will make people think you are nice, even if you are cold-blooded bastard.

Allow me to give a concrete example of these in motion. This is, by the way, the blog post I had prepped to roll out as my end of year wrap-up, so you’ll be able to see alllll of my tricks. The backstage peek on this particular topic, by the way, makes me a little nervous.

Hey! Awards season has started and I’m afraid I’m going to miss some stories because there’s so much good stuff out there. Will you drop me a line if you’ve read a story that I ought to pay attention to? Or if you’ve got a story you’re particularly proud of?

Nervous? Me too, so I’ll go first.

I had only two things come out this year.

  • “Goodhouse Keeping” a short story in the anthology Courts of the Fey
  • Kiss Me Twice” a novella appeared in Asimov’s this year

I was feeling like I hadn’t published much until a friend pointed out that I also wrote two novels this year and that a novella is a heck of a lot of words. Um… yeah. I will stop feeling bad about myself now.

Isn’t that ridiculous that we do that to ourselves? I mean, I’m still over the moon about both of those stories and yet… Imposter syndrome sets in and I think I should be doing more.

The interesting thing about both of those sales is that they were originally NaNoWriMo novels.

For those of you who just finished NaNo– This is an interesting alternative. “Kiss Me Twice” this started life as my first NaNoWriMo project back in 2004. This year, I cut it down to novella length rather than beefing it up to a full length novel. I liked the story but recognized that, because we’re pushing me as a historical fantasy writer, it was unlikely an SF murder mystery would sell. I mean the elevator pitch was “CSI with a Mae West AI.”

It was also a little bit of a mess. The advantage of letting it sit for several years is that I’m a better writer now than I was then. I used Scrivener to break it apart into scenes and pull out the subplots I didn’t need. Then I rewrote from the beginning to fix it. The story went from 60k down to 25k.

“Goodhouse Keeping” is the first chapter, plus some other scenes from my third NaNo, reconfigured to be a short story. That one is all urban fantasy. Or rather, suburban fantasy. Elves in the burbs…

Anyway, the point is if you are looking at your NaNo and think that you can’t possibly flesh it out, consider cutting it down. Or look at it to see if there’s a short story in it that you can pull out. The words, they aren’t wasted even if you don’t sell it as a novel.

Whew. I rambled about that more than I meant to. Now it’s your turn. Drop me a line, or post in the comments below to talk about stories that you are excited about. Yours or someone else’s.

I got a lot of reading to catch up on.

See what I was doing? If you ran across that on my blog, without me calling attention to what I was doing, you might even link to it because I have some content there that doesn’t look self-promotional. It all totally is.

What this all comes down to is, weirdly, manners. But in the old sense. Manners — back in the Regency — used to be considered “an outward expression of your opinion of others.” If your manner to other people is such that you think of them, and treat them, as only people who will get you votes, then they will be able to tell and be irritated about it. If your manner is that these are people who you esteem and want to share the joy — yours and theirs — then they will respond accordingly. If you treat them like people you want to help get to where you are, they will keep coming back. The real secret is to be sincere about this.

Does that make sense?

Now the true test is to see how many of you think I’m a manipulative puppeteer– oh. Wait.

Darn. Busted.

Now… it’s your turn to practice self-promotion. Tell me what you’ve been working on this year. I really do have a lot of reading to catch up on and awards season is only beginning. What should I read?


Hugo-award winning author, Mary Robinette Kowal is a novelist and professional puppeteer. Her debut novel Shades of Milk and Honey (Tor 2010) was nominated for the 2010 Nebula Award for Best Novel. In 2008 she won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, while two of her short fiction works have been nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story: “Evil Robot Monkey” in 2009 and “For Want of a Nail” in 2011, which won the Hugo that year. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, and several Year’s Best anthologies, as well as in her collection Scenting the Dark and Other Stories from Subterranean Press.

She is serving her second term as the Vice President of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. This post and many others related to building a writing career have appeared on her blog.

6 Responses

  1. Joe Vasicek

    Well, let’s see…this year, I made the paradigm shift into indie publishing and self published three novels (Genesis Earth, Bringing Stella Home, and Desert Stars), as well as a handful of short stories and novellas. This topic of self promotion has definitely been on my mind, because the indie route requires a lot more accountability on the author’s part, and a lot of other indies seem to be experiencing success through their self promotion efforts. I’ve heard conflicting things from long-term professionals, though, which makes me wonder where the proper balance lies.

    Right now, I’m working on building my list, with a goal to put out a minimum of two professionally edited novels per year. I’m doing a little bit of promotion on my blog and through guest posts, but that’s about it. My sales aren’t spectacular at this point, but they seem to be fairly steady, and I have good reason to hope that I can make a living at this in a few years, if I keep putting books out and help them grow into their natural audience. That’s probably the most important thing to keep in mind when it comes to promotion: helping your books find their natural audience, not pushing them to people who probably won’t enjoy them.

  2. Brittain Sluder

    Ahh, so I face the inevitable.

    I just self-pubbed an ebook on Amazon and, being only 21, have spent many hours arguing with my parents over exactly this! That line about being a pompous ass might have been lifted from my lips by God himself and deposited on your post.

    I’ve always felt uncomfortable with self-promotion. I understand its necessity, but you’re right — it always feels cheap. That said… I believe you said it very well in your paragraph about manners, especially when you said “The real secret is to be sincere about this.” I can’t articulate why, but the seeming oxymoronic idea of adopting a manner and also being sincere about it reminds me of the Taoist concept of “wu wei”, or to act without acting, to act effortlessly.

    The above, of course, segues well into the self-promotion aspect of this comment, wherein I feel compelled to say that I’m a lover of short stories. Even though my debut (digital) publication, The Electrician’s Gift, is a novella about a lighting-derived superpower, and entrenched somewhat in the Nikola Tesla mythos, my first and truest love is the short story anthology I have in the works. And they are rather heavily inspired by Taoist thought and my subsequent ponderings.

    So, in sum, thanks very much for the encouragement and the assurance that, if done tactfully, my attempts at self-promotion can be tasteful and well-mannered. If you’re looking for something to read, feel free to check out The Electrician’s Gift on Amazon… but at the risk of shooting myself in the foot, keep an eye out for my anthology, fittingly called “Tales Along the Way”. I’d name a genre, but it’s all over the place, from a mammoth, planet-side maze to the coast of Venezuela to the hallway between life and death to a land where if you sail far enough out into the Sea, the world ends and you start to hallucinate.

    How’d I do?

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  5. Bryan Rainey

    I have yet to publish anything yet. However, later this year I will release my first novel as an eBook on the Kindle and the Nook called Royal Pains, it is the first novel in the Odyssey Star universe.

    I have other books that I am working on as well. I do have a blog, a Facebook page, and a twitter feed so far for my self promotion. I do like to talk. But am better with the written word.