'Toady' cover image is © Mark Morris - used with permission.
My guest today is Mark Morris, author of Toady, Stitch, The Immaculate, The Secret of Anatomy, Fiddleback and The Deluge. He has also written four Doctor Who books, as well as scripts for audiobooks.
He also writes short stories, novellas, articles and reviews, which have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, and he is editor of the highly-acclaimed Cinema Macabre, a book of fifty horror movie essays by genre luminaries, for which he won the 2007 British Fantasy Award.
Here he talks about the internet, book promotion and the age of electronic networking, speaking from the perspective of someone who had begun writing well before the advent of the web.
I was chatting to a couple of good chums – author Gary McMahon and Angry Robot editor Lee Harris – over drinks in Leeds last week, when I happened to mention that Simon had asked me to do him a guest blog (ie this guest blog. The one you’re reading now). My comment led to a discussion of how, over the past twenty years or so, the methods have changed by which writers, publishers, editors and agents promote themselves and their wares, particularly with regard to the impact that online promotion has had on the writing community (well, I say ‘community’, but it’s hardly the cosy little enclave of like-minded souls that that word applies. Perhaps a more appropriate phrase might be ‘writing world’, or even ‘universe’).
When my first novel, Toady, was published in 1989, the idea of promoting one’s work via a worldwide system of interlinked computer users was the stuff of science-fiction. Back in the prehistoric 80s the general consensus was that there wasn’t a whole lot that authors could do off their own bat. Oh, you could turn up for magazine/radio/TV interviews and/or book signings/personal appearances arranged by your publisher, but short of hiring a campaign van and touring the highways and byways of the nation, bellowing details of your latest missive to the masses and flogging copies out the window, the opportunity to connect with the majority of your target audience was limited.
And then, from the late 90s onwards, so rapidly and comprehensively that we now can’t imagine a world without them, we were engulfed by a tsunami of websites, blogs, discussion forums and social networking sites. And all of a sudden, the previously unattainable – or at least hard-to-get-to – was right there, at our fingertips. That out of print book you’d spent months trawling second-hand bookshops for? Just order a copy off Amazon for a few pence. That programme you missed on the telly? Catch up with it on iPlayer. That writer/actor/pop star you like, but would previously have only been able to contact by sending a letter to their publisher/agent/record company? Just drop them a message via Twitter or Facebook or their personal website.
Of course, this brave new world of easy pickings and limitless opportunities is unbelievably wonderful – especially for someone who grew up in the 70s. If you missed a favourite TV programme back then, it stayed missed; there was no buying the DVD or catching up with it online. I particularly remember the gut-wrenching trauma of missing episode 6 of the Doctor Who story The Green Death in 1973 because it was my best friend’s birthday and we were going camping for the weekend to celebrate. Not only was this the last episode of the story with the giant maggots, and the last episode of the entire season, but most importantly it was the last episode featuring popular companion, the lovely Jo Grant. It wasn’t actually until twenty-odd years later, when the video came out, that I got the chance to see Jo’s tearful farewell. When I did, I remember sitting there, enraptured, unable to shake off the feeling that I’d finally found a long-lost and much-treasured item that I’d spent two-thirds of my life searching for. Of course, videos have been with us for a couple of decades now (and DVDs about half that time), but I still love the fact that you can own movies and TV shows that – usually from a single showing – had such a profound effect and influence on you as a child. I try explaining this sense of glee and wonder to my teenage children, and they look at me with expressions that waver somewhere between pity and condescension. For them, TV shows and movies aren’t special, they aren’t events; they are merely commodities. Because, like everything else, they are readily available, all the time, at the touch of a button.
As I say, that’s brilliant, and I love it – but it’s also a bit of a shame. When things become easy to acquire they lose their aura of magic and mystique, their sense of preciousness. I remember fruitless, frustrating hours spent trawling second-hand bookshops for a copy of Ramsey Campbell’s then out-of-print first novel, The Doll Who Ate His Mother. Time and again I’d come away disappointed. But when I (or rather, my wife) finally tracked down a copy… oh man, it was such a brilliant feeling. And precisely because that book was so hard to come by, it now means so much more to me. Far more than if I’d simply logged on to Amazon and pressed a button to buy one of the numerous second-hand copies currently on offer.
I’m digressing a bit here, but not much, because the point I’m trying to make is that when everything is available all the time, it becomes extremely hard to make something stand out, to make it seem special. Big names and big franchises – Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer, Doctor Who, Harry Potter – have a ready-made audience and can almost generate their own publicity (in fact, sometimes they go out of their way to be secretive, to provide as little information as possible, as with, for instance, the upcoming Doctor Who Christmas special, so as not to flood the market and succumb to audience-fatigue before the damn thing has even appeared!), but for the majority of us – the mid-listers – the irony of having a ready-made publicity machine at our disposal (ie the internet) is that it becomes increasingly harder to be heard amid the worldwide throng of voices.
Of course, I do what almost every other jobbing, moderately successful, moderately well-known (in certain circles) writer does by way of promotion these days – I have a website, a blog (though that’s currently in a state of suspended animation due to a number of boring technical factors), and I’m active on Facebook and, until recently, Twitter. I use these online resources to keep in touch with mates, meet new friends and fans, express my opinion (for what it’s worth) on a variety of topics, and let people know about upcoming novels, stories, projects, personal appearances etc.
But sometimes (a lot of the time, in fact) I wonder whether any of that makes any difference – and this was the crux of the discussion I was having with Gary and Lee last week. At the end of the day, with so much else to compete against online, I honestly wonder how effective one’s own little corner of the internet actually is. How many extra books do you sell because you mention it on Facebook? How many more people turn up to a bookshop or library event, or buy a ticket for a literary festival you’re appearing at, merely because you talk about it on your blog? I even wonder how many people actually take the time to read a blog by someone like me (less than 10? A couple of dozen? Several hundred?), and of those people how many of them are positively influenced by what you say, to the extent that they would go out and buy your book not because they already like you and your work, and would probably have done so anyway, but because they’ve been galvanised into it purely by the strength of your words.
In short, what I’m wondering is whether websites and blogs and Facebook updates actually do draw in potential new fans, or whether we’re all merely preaching to the converted.
I’d be interested to know, because I have absolutely no idea. If you’ve read this far, then I would genuinely like to have your opinions and comments. All I know is that I’ve never had a stranger come up to me at an event and say: ‘I came here and bought a book because I read about it on your blog’. But I’ll continue to do it because… well, because it’s what you do; and because it’s nice to keep up with friends and acquaintances and to feel part of a community; and because, however much you might often feel that your voice is being swamped by the clamour around it, there’s a chance that you just might be making a difference to someone’s life somewhere – that someone out there might hear you and feel enlightened, or informed, or amused, or inspired, or invigorated by your words.
And, if nothing else, that’s important.
Many thanks to Mark for taking time out to write this!! His website can be found here.