Sunday, August 30, 2009

Want Readers? Then Shut Up!

by Mike Duran

That's right -- If you want people to buy your book, then keep your opinions to yourself! At least, that's the conventional wisdom amongst many agents, authors, and publicists. The reasoning goes something like this:

If you're trying to be honest and authentic on your blog, Facebook, or Twitter account, and you spout off about religion, politics, parenting, public education, gay rights, abortion rights, health care -- or any number of controversial topics -- you risk alienating potential readers.
So when it comes to selling books, transparency is apparently a liability.

It's understandable. I mean, wouldn't it be disconcerting to discover that one of your favorite authors was an anti-Semite, believed the earth was flat, or shopped at Walmart? When it comes to building a platform, there is value in keeping your mouth shut and keeping your topics to a minimum. God forbid that you actually reveal you like Sarah Palin or something.

The choice between honesty and diplomacy is not always easy. Christians ar
e commanded to "speak the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15). However, someone who's attempting to cultivate a platform and craft a public persona must be careful what "truth" they actually speak. On the one hand, by being transparent, up-front, or opinionated, we risk offending people and alienating readers. On the other hand, by muzzling our convictions and skirting controversial topics, we risk being dishonest. Furthermore, how an author is perceived by the industry is important. The writer who speaks her mind and is vocal about her convictions, inevitably runs the risk of staying the hand that could sign her paycheck.

So what's an author to do?

Maybe it's a matter of personal conviction. Maybe it's a matter of business acumen. But when I shut up -- when I say what people want to hear and refrain from saying what they don't -- I feel less like a diplomat and more like a suck-up.

Either way, building readership and marketing yourself is a tightrope.

Like many walks of public life, the broader the audience, the more we must temper what we say. Some authors opt for completely avoiding reference to their religious beliefs, political affiliations, and/or books they didn't like. Others wear those opinions on their sleeves. Regardless, we can take consolation in the fact that people come to fiction, film and music for what it does for them, not the political, ideological views of the artists.

In other words,
a good story, well told, always trumps one's artistic tastes and political or religious affiliations.

Okay, so maybe honesty and diplomacy can coexist. I mean, I can be honest without being obnoxious. Just because I'm pro-life does not mean I'm a Neanderthal. But if perception is a key to publication, then the outspoken writer always runs the risk of being perceived as a malcontent, a loose cannon, or agitator.

Alas, maybe being a suck-up is a better career option. Either that, or I can build a platform of malcontents and agitators…


Alissa said...

Well, I am pretty opinionated, but at least in an online sense try to only weigh on those issues that are less controversial. Besides, as far as I can tell, when it comes to the controversial stuff there's already too much out there on it.

A great example of this is Orson Scott Card, who I have decided that I no longer respect as a human being. Problem is he is a great writer. He wrote Ender's Game, for god's sakes. Still, knowing more than I ever wanted to know about his personal views does make me think twice about picking up one of his books.

Mike Duran said...

I know that Card's profession and defense of Mormonism rankles lots of people. To me, the quality of his stories trump his religious affiliation. If I felt he was proselytizing with his fiction, it would be another story.

Enjoying art requires concessions, for there is no artist, actor, author or musician that we will always see eye to eye with. In fact, it's possible to make great art and be a complete loon. Ultimately it's up to each of us to decide what opinions and beliefs are polarizing and require boycotting an artist. Thanks for your comment, Alissa!

Nicole said...

I think I'd prefer the attraction of malcontents and agitators to sucking up. You can't trust a suck-up.

Tricia said...

When you said WalMart, I clasped my hand over my mouth in shock. You are so right; that definately taints my view of someone. You are supposed to shop there, just never admit it.

Sheila Deeth said...

It's an interesting balance. But then, having books out there is probably a balancing act too, with entertainment and message tipping it either way.

Mike Duran said...

Tricia, for some folks, shopping at Walmart is the equivalent of believing the earth is flat. What we need is a famous author to do a book signing there. Any volunteers?

Debra E Marvin said...

Thanks for the tip - in good timing for me. I'm part of a group blog that has just begun. It's easy to feel you are 'among friends', but the words don't always come across as you thought they would.

Jessica McInnis said...

sometimes we have to be straightforward about the truth though, but done in a loving way. But loving doesn't always mean soft spoken and sweet. If Jesus always said things soft spoken and sweet, diplomatic and uncontroversial, He wouldn't be the Jesus i read about in the Bible. Cause the Jesus i read about was soft spoken and sweet when it was the time for that, and straightforward and honest and bold when it was time for that too.

Sometimes we have to take monetary/platform loses if we are called upon to stand up for what we believe in. I believe it is better to speak the truth and offend and face the consequences, than to be silent and let lies flourish unhindered because i was worried about losing potential customers.

Niki Turner said...

David's army of mighty men started out as nothing more than a bunch of depressed, discouraged, and in debt malcontents and agitators. I don't know, if we don't express our opinions, we'll not only be suck-ups, we'll be assimilated by the Borg. : )

Donald James Parker said...

This hits me right where I live. I knew that I'd face an uphill battle because I have chosen to obey the word of the Lord to fear Him and not man. I would not even be writing if it were not for the battle for men's hearts and minds. I'd rather have one person read my books and have their life changed than millions read them and be untouched by God's word. But you did hit a key point here - speak the truth in love. Good food for thought, Mike!
Donald James Parker
Author of Reforming the Potter's Clay

Lynn Squire said...

What came to mind as I read this was that Jesus was outspoken. He spoke the truth, which was and is unpopular. And yet, His story is the most well-known story in the world, I'd venture to say. Why? Because God made it that way. I think I'd rather have God on my side than the general public, even if it means I don't become a Tom Clancy or a Jane Austen. It's not about me; It's about God.

Gina Holmes said...

My philosophy is let it all tumble. There are other ways to make money than writing. All mature adults are going to censor ourselves somewhat out of kindness or save it for the appropriate place and time, whatever, but may we never stop speaking and writing truth, no matter whose feathers we ruffle. Thanks Mike. I know you well enough to know that you will never "shut up" and I'm grateful for that.

Elaina M. Avalos said...


I have a big mouth. And struggle with this all of the time. I appreciate your thoughts here. I've been trying to find the correct balance myself. I know what I don't want for certain. I was a HUGE fan of a secular author who has always been excessively available to her readers. She had a blog that was quite active and she interacted with us on a regular basis -- even reading my humble, random blog from time to time.

But something snapped somewhere in there and her blog took a quick turn into what became scary territory. I do not mind someone sharing their views in a respectful manner. I read lots of people who do not agree with me on politics let alone matters of faith. However, she went from stating political viewpoints now and then to calling people names (and that's the nicest way to put it). And not just political leaders but anyone who voted that way.

The name calling became so intense and vitriolic, that several of us finally spoke up and said, as light-hearted as possible, uhm...some of your readers vote that way. This opened up a can of worms the likes of which I'd never seen (including her telling us that she'd rather not have us buy her books then) that ended with her acknowledging publicly that her publicist told her she needed to stop. She doesn't blog anymore.

It affected, her hatred (literal hatred) for people who believe like me, my desire to buy her books. There have been one or two other situations like that where I've been so turned off, I'm just not interested anymore. It's one thing to have differing views. It's another to write blog posts, with malice and hatred directed at a group of people! And lest I think it's only on one side of the aisle -- I've seen it on the other side too.

Long story longer, that's the extreme I know I don't want. On the other, Gina is right that the truth ruffles feathers. I don't mind being a ruffler. I am just praying however, that my big mouth finds a way to speak truth without being a hideous clanging symbol.

Thanks for being a thought provoker, Mike.

Gina Holmes said...

Excellent thoughts,Elaina. Like everything in life, there is a right way to do something, and a wrong way. As Christians, speaking the truth in love is a lot different than just speaking the truth as we see it and saying the first horrible thing that pops in our head.

BTW, liberal democrats as well as conservative republicans, (and folks of any religion or race)m are welcome to buy and read Crossing Oceans when it releases. ;-)

Thanks for taking the time all to add your thoughts.

Mike Duran said...

Elaina, I appreciate your comments. I do think the issue here -- especially for Christians -- is finding that balance. If we are to "speak the truth in love" then it's not an either/or proposition. What we say is as important as how we say it. Name calling is just wrong. In my opinion (of which I have many), Christian authors get themselves into trouble when they sacrifice one or the other. We shouldn't have to shut up to sell books. But neither should we steamroll everyone with our beliefs and opinions. Thanks again for your comments, Elaina.

Anonymous said...

This is crap. Someone go tell Ayn Rand, George Orwell, Jonathan Swift, Upton Sinclair and Terry Pratchett that it's better to keep you political views to yourself. What a joke.

thjacks said...

Very well said. I am recommending this post for Ed Dale's "The Challenge" participants. Yesterday's lesson was on the subject of Persona in Market Leadership. Your post makes the concept quite clear.
As a Christian I recognize the dilemma that some are having, but am reminded that "there is a time to speak and a time to refrain from speaking" Ecclesiastes.