Apparently keen to consolidate his position as technophobes’ favorite literary curmudgeon, Jonathan Franzen has taken another swing at social media and its invidious demands on that poor besieged figure, the author. As reported in Britain’s The Bookseller, Franzen claimed on BBC Radio 4’s Today program that young American writers were feeling “absolutely coerced into this constant self-promotion” by agents who insisted that they spend their time upping their Twitter follower count rather than developing their craft.

Franzen also complained that the same young writers were  missing out on lost opportunities to earn freelance bucks as social media steals away those formerly lucrative niches, and that the book trade was facing “really the demolition of the brick and mortar book business by Amazon.”

Maybe this is Franzen paying his dues to the conservative camp in a literary establishment that promoted him to Stephen King-esque Time Magazine “Great American Novelist” front cover status on the strength of three novels plus one book launch? After all, that’s great expectations to live up to. It certainly seems like he spends about as much time complaining about Twitter or generally feeding the publicity beast in the course of promoting his latest work, The Kraus Project, as any young American writer loses through tweeting.

This, incidentally, is the book described by Dwight Garner in a recent New York Times review as: “a disheveled and talky assault on everything the author sees when he opens his laptop or clicks on a television, including, but not limited to, Facebook, smartphones, ‘the high-school-cafeteria social scene of Gawker takedowns and Twitter popularity contests,’ the hipness of Apple products, reality TV, Fox News, Amazon, even the “recent tabloidization” of the AOL home page … this book’s series of drive-by pea shootings (he pings Salman Rushdie for condescending to tweet) are beneath him.”

Perhaps Franzen’s version of perfecting his craft is now honing the perfect anti-Amazon putdown? For it seems that different standards apply to the traditional demands of book trade marketing, like traditional bookstores, traditional black-tie galas, or traditional Great American Novelists. All the financial and reputational coercion in the world to stump up for that kind of call on your time is fine, it seems. After all, that’s what traditional Great American Novelists do.


  1. From everything I’ve heard from other authors, Franzen is right that publishers are insisting that self-promotion, including Facebook and friends, is an important part of the writer’s job.

    We are also expected to pay for some of our advertising, reader and publishing conventions, and, oh, yeah, the next book is due in a few weeks.

  2. I still don’t understand why it’s a bad thing to expect a professional (aka not a hobbyist) to have a multifaceted job that involves more than just their one key skill. I am a teacher and take tons of time away from ‘improving’ my teaching to do less fun but still related tasks like supervising in the lunchroom, taking kids to the bathroom, wiping up spilled water and so on. I am also expected to pay for my own professional development classes, to keep and maintain a cell phone for use during playground duty and so on. Isn’t this part of having a professional job?

  3. I’ve only read a few essays by Franzen so I’m not a true fan, but it sounds like there may be something to what he says. The main job of authors is to write books, maybe go to a few book signings or give a lecture — not putz around with marketing on Facebook.

    Maybe it’s a generation thing (I’m close to Franzen’s age) but I have zero interest in Facebook and don’t have a need to interact with authors or otherwise be a public fanboy. I tend to think Salinger and Pynchon got it mostly right if a little extreme in how authors should face the public.

  4. Joanna, first, it’s a question of what writers are. A vast majority are introverts who are perfectly happy playing in their own heads for the amusement of others. Promotion is for extroverts, particularly the real world promotion many authors are required to do. Many of my friends are even uncomfortable doing online promotion because it focuses on them, not their work.

    If they emphasize their work instead of themselves and their interests, readers scream at them for being promo whores and run in the opposite direction.

    Then there’s the question of money. A vast majority of writers don’t make a living at what they do so they have second jobs to pay the bills. Every minute they take out of their lives to write is at the cost of things others take for granted like sleep, entertainment, family and friend time, and sports. Every minute taken in promotion is a minute less writing because that time has to come from somewhere.

    Writers also must maintain their skills with classes, etc., and all bills including insurance, office expenses, and promotion are paid by them, not their publisher who doesn’t pay them during the creation process, except in the rare case of a decent advance on earnings, and the publisher holds on to the money for sold books for as long as possible.

    Promotion is very different from writing, too, so the writer has to learn a whole different set of skills on top of their writing skills. Over the years, I’ve learned how to create a website, maintain that website and deal with glitches and security issues, work with graphics in various complicated ways, design ads, give public speeches, etc., etc.

    I’m also a former public and college teacher as well as a writer so I can honestly say that, no, being a writer isn’t the same thing on a professional level as being a teacher.

  5. Marilynn, I appreciate your thoughtful and respectful reply. I don’t mean to imply that a teacher and a writer are an equal job; merely that they are, at their highest levels, professional jobs, and as such might involve more than one core skill just like any profession does. I think it is certainly fair to say that there are many aspects involved in book production, and to say that somebody has to do them or they won’t get done. I think it is fair to say, too, that some of these functions used to be performed by publishers. So, if they have downloaded the responsibility for them onto the authors, have they downloaded that extra share of the profits too?

    Maybe there is a niche market now for professional marketers who can work with authors on a commission bases if they truly are an introvert who can’t do it themselves. Or maybe there is a market for training programs which authors can undergo to teach them these skills, the same way people undergo journalism diplomas or any other professional training. I am not sure what the solution is. But I don’t think it’s fair to say ‘authors should only have to write’ should be the default either. No other true profession is based solely on a single task.

  6. A consistent message I’m hearing from successful authors (both self- and traditionally published) is that you have to treat your writing as a business. It doesn’t mean you have to do everything, but you do need a business plan and know what you can/will do yourself and what you will/can outsource.

    Times are changing in the world of publishing, and the authors who will be most successful are the ones who adapt and learn the new skills they need to survive.

  7. Times are indeed changing, but what we will get is a person with a good business plan, outstanding marketing skills, and mediocre to poor writing skills out selling the talented author who couldn’t sell a water skin to a thirsty Bedouin.

    I’m a computer programmer and it would be foolish for me to attempt sales and marketing. Likewise many sales people would be lost if they attempted programming.

  8. @Greg M, but that’s a truth of business in general. Businesses that are more successful at marketing and at changing with the times are more successful than businesses that aren’t. Blackberry and Palm, Inc. anyone?

    Nor is it new. Dickens, as much as I love him, was, in his time, a hack writer who was good at churning out words and attracting an audience. Bleak House, my favorite of his, could benefit from some trimming. How many of his contemporaries, some of whom might have been better writers, have been lost because they weren’t as successful at gathering a readership?

    Oh, and the water skin wasn’t the important thing to sell to the thirsty Bedouin. It’s the water that was in the skin. 😉

  9. In answer to your question, Joanna, no, the big publishers aren’t paying more. They are paying less as well as writing such restrictive contracts that they all but guarantee, in most cases, that the writer can’t escape that publisher or write outside that publisher’s line.

    They are also offering far fewer of the traditional services like serious editing, and the promotion which has always been abysmal for everyone but the bestselling authors has gotten even worse.

    And, you obviously haven’t shopped for promotion services. Most cost more than an author will make on his book even with promotion services added. Writing is a zero-sum business. Authors spend months or years writing a book with no pay which may or may not be published and, in rare cases, they may receive a small advance, then they have to wait months or years before they see another penny.

    At no time will they know what they will make in the short or long term. During this period, all the expenses of promotion, etc., are squarely on the writer so she goes even further into the financial hole without seeing income. Most can’t justify spending large sums on promotion so they do what promotion they can do themselves.

    And, yes, there is all kinds of information on doing promo yourself. There’s also websites, etc. (If anyone is interested, I include links to promo info in my “Links of Interest” Wednesday on my blog. )

    And, yes, being an author is a business, and I’ve spent years teaching other authors the skills and information needed, but with so much demanded of the author when so little is offered in return, what is the breaking point? Each author must figure that out.

    Juli, your definition of a hack is different from mine. Dickens is easily in the top 10, if not the top 5, of the greatest novelists of all time. I doubt you’d get much disagreement from any English teacher or professor on that one.

    Sure, he wrote for money, but so did every other great writer of his period. He had financial troubles so he had to write fast, and he was a real promotion dynamo, but so was Mark Twain and a host of other great writers of the period. That didn’t make them any less a great writer.

    Some of the most popular writers of that period, many more popular than Dickens, have been forgotten and for good reason. They were dreadful writers.

    Others, like Melville, made very little money on their fiction, but they are still in print because they are so damn good.

  10. Marilynn, some people do make a living at it though, don’t they? I am thinking of the self-publishers like Hugh Howey or Blake Crouch. If they were able to achieve their success because their promotion was good, then to me, it stands to reason that this means in today’s marketplace, professional writing is no longer a single-skill job. Whether that puts some authors in a worse situation or not is immaterial to the truth that this is reality.

    Some people, like me, for instance, will decide they don’t enjoy that stuff and will turn to other bread and butter careers. I keep my creative projects a sideline, and I am happier that way. I know what it would take to get me to the next level, and I am just to there yet. If I did want to make it a job, a career, then there are changes I would have to make, like it or not. I don’t think someone who truly wants to be a pro has the luxury to say ‘this part of the job does not fit my personality.’ The choices are to either not do it and therefore not be a pro, to do it and reap the risks and potential benefits, or to pay someone else to do it.

  11. @Marilynn, as I said, I adore Dickens. He’s one of my favorite writers. But, as people define “hack” writers today (like many people accuse Stephen King of being), he fit the definition in his day. And he was every bit as roundly criticized by his peers as King, who is another favorite of mine.

    And one of the definitions of “hack” is writing hastily or routinely. Which fits Dickens, and many highly successful authors today, like Konrath and Crouch.

    My point is that gathering readership is every bit as important as good writing. Actually, it’s more important. I’m sure there were some fantastic writers in the past who have been lost, not because they weren’t good at writing, but because they weren’t good at marketing themselves.

  12. Yeah, some people make a good living at it, but the fact that people like Howey make major news shows how rare it is.

    I’m not saying promo isn’t necessary, but that the task is way outside the parameters of a writer’s normal skills. The big publishers won’t bother and the small publishers can’t afford it so it’s up to writers who aren’t Stephen King to do it themselves.

    Promo is hard, expensive, a death to writing time, and nine times out of ten, it doesn’t work because even professional promoters can’t guess whether it will work or not. That’s the reality of the situation.

    I’ve had a book that was listed as one of top ten best mysteries of the year at a major site and had perfect reviews, I did all the right promo, and I still couldn’t give the book away. I’ve also had books that had few awards and just a few great reviews with little promotion, and they have sold constantly, if not at bestseller levels, over the years.

    The idea that writers should promote outside of what the publisher plans has only been around since the mid-Nineties. Romance authors were at the forefront of this movement, and many were told by their publisher that they should not promote themselves, should stay off the newfangled Internet, and should stay away from readers at all costs.

    For better or worse, the publishers figured out that all that free promotion was turning romance into the biggest genre in history, some romance writers moved into other genres with the same methods, and now it’s an industry-wide necessity.

    Dickens’ promotion consisted of giving reading which people paid to hear, and he made a good living off that as well as his books. Today, with very few exceptions, readers and the public won’t attend a free reading, let alone pay to see a writer. His biggest talent, beyond his genius at writing, was he figured out how to make more money by serializing his stories among other techniques.

    Juli, as to “hacks,” you really don’t have any sense of the history of writing. It’s only been in the last fifty years that the attitude that writing books to sell and making a living at it makes a writer a “hack.” That attitude is courtesy of the literary snobs and the people who deem anything the masses likes as inferior.

    Before that, writers like Dickens were the norm. You wrote for money and popularity back then with just a few authors striving for literary greatness. Literary greatness was applied to works of many years before, not what was being published then.

    My own definition of a hack is a writer who is an adequate writer who fills in the holes in a publisher’s list. The books are okay, but you forget them within a day of reading them because they lack depth and surprise.

    I know several science fiction writers who made their living for many years under many pen names doing just that.

    These days, there are so few holes that the professional hack is almost nonexistent.

  13. As a reader, I don’t care to have promo in my face all day long. My sympathy to writers who do decide to use social media to promo their work because it’s a balancing act. I usually unfollow heavy handed promoters. Some writers don’t know how to promote their work on Twitter. I see some of them just straight up spamming people. So, I do feel where Franzen is coming from. HIs focus should be only on his craft. Sorry for the tone but the topic of promo and social media can get me going. Like everyone else has said, it’s a new day and everyone is cutting costs where they can these days.

  14. If Mr. Franzen abhors Amazon so much he should have his agent add a clause to his contract forbidding them to sell his print books there. They typically account for 30-40 percent of print book sales so just let those sales go to the indie booksellers. Don’t sell through the bad boy before Amazon either, Barnes & Noble. Make a stand! Man up against the future.

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