Shelf Promotion: Trading Commerce for Art
October 24, 2014
Near top the list of my greatest riches is the gang of artists I call friends: poets and painters, musicians and quilters, collagists and photographers. Our conversations, across medium and genre, stimulate me to consider the world at angles skew to my default impulses, and push my work to places I would not know how to take it on my own. We talk about books we’ve read—the new or the old, the overrated, the flat-out brilliant—and music we’ve rediscovered (’80s REM, anyone?) We talk about art that makes us wince, shiver, flounce or rage. We talk about the process of making, and our tools (words, paint, sound) and the tasks the tools are applied to—elegy, play, witness, and praise.
Over the past year or so, one conversational theme has recurred among us more than any other, rivaling even the old standbys, “Balancing Procrastination and Discipline” & “Does Art Really Matter?” Over beers, walking the dog and in stolen asides at conferences, we return again and again to this: How to negotiate the terrain that up-thrusts when art abuts commerce? We vent and bemoan how it seems you can’t be a writer any more without also being a spokesperson. We worry that we spend too much or not enough time shepherding work through the world. Even as we celebrate each other’s external triumphs—this prize, that grant, a fundraiser goal met, a book contract signed—we admit, in bit-off sentences, to a vague internal shame that underlies moments when a thing we make becomes a thing to buy. Because a thing to buy is necessarily a thing someone must sell. And more and more, we’re told, that someone is us.
My own history in sales is short but tortured. In grade school, my class held fundraisers for various causes: the magazine sale, the chocolate bar sale, the case-of-citrus sale, proceeds going for sports uniforms or library orders. I was not a big fan of these events, though some were easier than others. Grapefruit customers were a sure bet; Mom, aunts and grandparents waited to buy fruit from my siblings and me. Chocolate bars sold themselves to my immoderate father’s sweet tooth. I didn’t even have to leave the house.
The magazines were something else. Without a built-in customer base in the family, I had to go door-to-door. I dreaded this. I never won prizes for the most sales; in fact, I often “lost” the sign up sheet, and once, prefiguring my fiction writer self, I fabricated a list of purchasers, inventing characters to go with choices. Who would order Popular Science? Sports Illustrated, with the free, illicit calendar? Ranger Rick? I felt sheepish about such lame efforts, especially when classmates compared numbers and showed off loot, but I couldn’t bring myself to cross neighbors’ porches, ring doorbells and ask if they wanted to buy something. Draw attention to myself, and pursue a profit, in front of a virtual stranger? Humiliating.
This commerce-based shame, persisting into adulthood, is of course my own brew, mixed from equal parts Calvinist roots, which lodged in me the hunch that I had no business asking for attention or rewards, and an introvert base, which does not relish direct address in any form. I certainly don’t mean to project this aversion on to every author or artist; there are people, some I admire very much, who can chat and connect and raise funds and sell things happily, and well, with integrity and a sense of fun. Still, I know, from the recurring conversations, that many of us hover at the base of porch stairs, shifting our feet. You’d think our numbers would make it easier to bear, or better, easier to revolt, but somehow we still feel...powerless.
In anticipation of my first book published last year, I worried about this issue a lot. Preparations for the book’s release date centered on pragmatic, market-based concerns: how the cover would look reproduced in print reviews, how “discoverable” a subtitle would be by search engines. These were necessary questions, and I appreciated the good people whose job it was to ask them. (Even a non-profit press has to keep the lights on, and thriving literary businesses are good for every reason.) But a publicity department is one thing, a self quite another. As delighted as I was that the book was wanted and invited to enter the world on its own terms, I worried that I’d feel like a shill, in constant discomfort at the notice most writers both crave and hide from.To my great surprise, once the book was out and the conversation actually began, I almost never felt this way. The dog-and-pony show I dreaded rarely materialized.
Not for lack of chances. I have done a lot of book events in the last year, radio interviews, panel discussions, classroom visits, and many readings. Some were invitations—Alaska library events, conference keynote speeches. Friends or colleagues initiated other events, eager to help welcome my book in their town or classroom. Some events I lined up myself, reaching out to store owners or librarians in places I knew I’d be visiting. A few times, particularly when emailing people I didn’t know, I felt ever so slightly like a hawker. Book cover, author photo, links to reviews, hey, look at my wares, how ’bout I come and read?
But after the events were set up and the asking was over, after people gathered in circled chairs and I began to read, I didn’t feel like a salesperson at all. I didn’t even feel like a performer. I felt like a participant in a vibrant culture. There were beautiful rooms dedicated to readings, and bookstore employees who notably adored books. (Elliot Bay in Seattle had both.) There were festivals predicated entirely on books and reading, hotel lobbies thronged with readers and writers arguing, laughing and recommending. (Montana Festival of the Book.) There were home living rooms where friends gathered for a book-based soiree’. There were radio interviewers with engaging questions and listeners who called in to talk. On the air and on the road, I spoke with thoughtful people about tools and wild places, gender and class and work, about books, and writing books, and loving books. While talking or listening or reading at these events, I never once thought about the magazines. Or grapefruits. Or prizes.
Midway through the busiest months, my back-grounded worry came to a head when an acquaintance said to me in passing, “Good for you, you’re really out there selling yourself!” I think I smiled, a thin and ungracious expression that itched on my face. I felt unsettled and defensive all afternoon, but I couldn’t put my finger on the exact reason her comment triggered such rage and shame in me. It was my book, after all, not some corporate rag or cheap trinket. No one forced me to write it, or took me to the road at gunpoint, and there was no pressure; I wasn’t feeding a family based on its sales. For the most part, I had honestly enjoyed the time I’d spent escorting the book around. Still, the comment plagued me. Selling myself? I don’t think of my book primarily as an object of commerce. I don’t like being the implicit recipient of funds raised. Oh, yes, all proceeds go to a great cause. Me! (As if this were even true.) It was more than that. It was something bigger than the way I saw myself. What bugged me wasn’t about me at all.
If I had thought it through clearly, I might have told that well-meaning woman that I wasn’t doing readings and visits to sell myself, or even my book (though sales are nothing to complain about). I was doing them because I wanted to experience that last step in an artistic endeavor—the outward gesture. To offer up a vantage, a story, a narrative, in hopes it will shift something for a person who reads it. To watch the work I’ve done privately for so long become a part of a public conversation. A writer I love put it well: “Going out and sharing the book is about doing service to the book. Not for the self. And seeing a face and hearing a voice is still important, kind of hopeful. It allows for talking back.” Yes.
Despite the cliché trumpeted daily, I did not write a book in order to “share my story” or “sell myself,” just as most authors I know do not. I wrote Dirt Work because I care a shit-ton about the ideas in it, the subculture the ideas live in, and the stories through which I can approach both. I’m not a natural at the book tour, and I certainly reserve the right—for myself, or any other author—to choose to stay home. But I am passionate about the public sphere, that space where citizens gather not to purchase or sell, but to discuss specifics, to name subtle pressures and question assumptions, to know others more deeply. I wish we spent way more time talking about wilderness and manual labor, about women and men and how we work together, about how we’ve separated culture from nature to the grave disservice of both.
I wrote the book because I had something to say, but I also want to hear. A book tour is a speaking tour, but it can be a listening tour, too—a space for talking back, as my friend says. I’ve heard things from readers and writers in the past months that make me think differently about what I’ve written, and about what I’m writing now. I’ve heard book recommendations and spirited arguments. I’ve heard praise, sure, but also the thicker, complicated gifts, the tiny glimpses into an intersection of mind with page. I have received emails and letters, each one of which has been a highlight of that day, from people who said my book challenged them to be brave. Who thought about work they’ve done in a new way. People who want to talk about their favorite boots, their beloved tools. What incredible gifts are those? Far better than the cheesy toys I never won in grade school, these real prizes sustain me. On studio days when I have no momentum of my own and my prose seems forgettable, these conversations, ideas, and faces infuse me with energy that has nothing to do with sales rankings. It’s the energy of an engine chugging on the fuel of discourse, not revving on the fumes of cultivated desires.
A purely personal rant feels good, but there’s little point in examining my own experience without peering at the social tapestry hanging behind it, and calling out the problem straight away: the term “self-promotion” is wrongly applied to arts and literature. And it’s used so universally—readings to social media, Kickstarter campaigns to radio interviews—that it has lost any ability to denote real commercialism when it happens. Yes, there are examples of tiresome promotion coming from careerists, those hankering after a certain job title, bestseller list or sanctioned anointment, who have been duped into thinking success and fulfillment are the same. But in my experience, they are few and far between, outnumbered grossly by people who slog along at art out of pure love and fury. We hope our books or albums will be read and heard, bought and reviewed, but we don’t make them for this reason, and we fundamentally mischaracterize arts-work when we cede it to business-model language. Literary work, even when it is very successful, is not just another purchase on a website sidebar, nor is the arts as a vocation a bottom-line driven choice. Going public in search of conversation about what we write or compose or paint, what we find meaningful, critical even, is no more inherently self-promotional than having friends is, or lobbying on behalf of causes we believe in.
It’s not just the linguistic dishonesty to which I object, but the real, lasting damage that results from lazy language. Conflating promotion with public sphere conversation and internalizing shame around it crushes robust artistic and critical discourse, as it makes us less likely to speak up or interact because of the fear of seeming self-promotional. When I tighten my philosopher’s thinking cap, I follow the hunch that corporate capitalism’s indiscriminate labeling is not a coincidence, but its own necessity. No better way to take the wind out of the sails of art, in all its revolutionary, cart-tipping glory, and keep us consuming instead of critiquing. (For more on this strain, cue Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag. Another essay for another time.) This is all the more reason to keep throwing ourselves out there with our best, most thoughtful work, promotion be damned. Uncommodified art and writing is a corrective; it helps ideas, people or narratives gain traction they might not have through marketplace or social mechanisms. This happens first in the studio and then out in the open, at the interplay of self and world, where all art begins.
After that busy year of travels and talk, I spent this past summer home in Alaska. I had a few events, including a conversation with three writers I really admire in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act, and talks in arts lecture series in two different national parks. (It should be noted that none of those events was focused on sales, and each included some of the most memorable discussions I’ve had since the book came out). Still, compared to last year’s birthing push, I’ve stayed put, working on a novel and making my living the way I have for years: in the field, with a tool in my hand, which is a good thing, considering my first royalty statement (a whopping $83.00).
I don’t mean to be naive about money. We all earn our keep in different ways, some people from book sales, and yes, it matters that authors and presses are paid fairly and valued for what we offer. It matters that we discuss this vigorously, demanding our economic rights, especially in the face of corporate bullying. But it matters most that we participate, publically, in culture. Not just mass culture, the kind amalgamated and foisted upon us by group-think Top 10 Lists and internet buzz, but the kind of face-to-face culture where humans meet and look each other in the eye to say “Here’s what I loved. What matters to me. And here’s why. What matters to you?”
Kathleen Dean Moore writes, “I believe literature is a means by which cultures carry on a complicated, collaborative discourse about what is true and what is right—and what is not.” I’d add to that what is beautiful and frightening, funny and valuable—you can add more. Collaborate is not a theoretical verb, but an active one. Collaborate means talk, sometimes loud, above the blathering din, and sometimes softer than that which seeks to drown out by volume, attentive to a quiet response. It means show up; it means listen. It means write, revise, edit, and then read it, facing out, not eyes down. It means go to readings and recommend books, and buy books, and give books away. It means cultivate places where books and ideas (and music and art) take center stage, quite apart from whether they sell ten copies or ten thousand.
Believe me when I say this, as I do to myself whenever I feel paralyzed by market-nurtured shame: talking about our books (our songs, our sculptures) and about the project of making art is not self-promotion. And no one will correct this pointless definition but us. What if, instead of self-promotion, we said “participation?” What if a “brand” became a voice, a stance strong enough to impel further creative work? What if, instead of a “platform,” we built a band shell, a dance hall, a movement for the arts? That challenge spurs me, despite all hesitations, to the porch or the podium, to read and ask and hear. I want to say it to anyone who will listen: Books are not just objects for sale. Books are the tangible outgrowth of thinking and imagining. They are the prize of a culture that continues to think, and imagine. That dares to.
Christine Byl is a writer, professional trail-builder and the author of Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods, which was a finalist for the 2014 Willa Award in non-fiction. Her prose has appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, The Sun, Crazyhorse, Lumberyard, and at Broadsided Press, among others. A two-time recipient of grants from the Rasmuson Foundation and Alaska State Council on the Arts, Byl has been a fellow at Breadloaf, a writer-in-residence for Fishtrap, and teaches workshops on subjects from haiku to chainsaw mechanics. She lives with her husband and old sled dogs in a yurt off Stampede Road north of Healy, AK.
 “Editor’s Note” pg 3. ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature & Environment; Vol 21, Issue 1.