On Self Promotion

Image: Harry Kellar’s Show Posters/The Public Domain Review

Art critic Jerry Saltz publicly turned down a $250,000 deal Substack offered him. The self promotion was a dealbreaker. In his words, with some typos I couldn’t make sense of, here’s why: 

I think it’s fishy to always be barking to your readers to subscribe. I think it is not my real work to write [for] “subscribers.” My only work is to write for the reader.

I do NOT want a ore-screens paying audience who already reads it likes me. I want to reach strangers; be loved and hated by strangers; talk about art to anyone any where any how. I like being in my huge department store @Nymag where people find me who have no idea who I am or what I do or even thought about art before.

As much as I would love to be able to live like a human being and not three paychecks away oblivion- there is no way I could take the Substack offer because, as lucky as I am to be offered it, the only reason I would do it is … [for] the money.

I appreciate the sentiment of choosing to follow yourself rather than the money. I know there are people who become a creator to self-promote; they do their work merely to have something to talk about, or maybe to sell a course from it. But still, I’d wager that most of us have something else we’re working on, some obsession or compulsion that we need to itch. That’s what I liked about Saltz’s sentiment. So did M.G. Siegler, who writes at Medium:

This is the same reason why I have a hard time wrapping my head around ever writing a book (not that I have ideas bursting out of my brain either). I know what it takes to make a book successful. And we all see what authors must do in order to try to achieve such success. No judgement — well, slight judgement, but also some level of respect for the game — but I just don’t think I could bring myself to do it in a way it needs to be done.²

A book is an extreme version of shilling because the success or failure happens in such a relatively short amount of time. In order to make, say, a paid newsletter work, you would have to constantly be shilling for years. And again, nothing against this, it’s definitely part of the job because it’s a huge part of the model. I just honestly don’t know if I could bring myself to do it.

Even today, I often can’t bring myself to promote anything I’ve written. Not because I’m not proud of it — I often am, in some regard — but because I just view it as more in line with my own beliefs to have people find what I write (or not find what I write) naturally. Either they care enough to follow what I write via the mechanisms that automatically propagate the content (Medium, RSS, a stand-alone Twitter feed, etc), or they stumble upon it naturally elsewhere. I do at least somewhat believe in the meritocracy or Darwinian nature of content — that is, the best stuff will find you, one way or another. If you didn’t come upon something I wrote, you weren’t “meant” to, as it wasn’t good enough or in your wheelhouse, etc. Obviously, that’s a bit simplified and naive and even a bit unfair (to me and to you), but it’s how I tend to operate.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll do the retweet here and there for something I spent time on, but I rarely share it out myself from my “major” channels. It drives my wife insane as she’s one of the people who relies on me sharing it myself to find it — she doesn’t subscribe to my RSS feed, it would seem, for shame. In all honesty, I write this now in part to help me think through if I should try to swallow my pride and do more such self-promotion.

When Corporations Prohibit Self Promotion

Image: The Carpet Merchant by Jean-Léon Gérôme/Artvee

Seth Abramson writes, at his own Substack, that Saltz’s rejection of the platform was driven by New York magazine, “which forbids its employees from having substacks—created the problem that Saltz faced because it was (and is) terrified that its model of content creation is dying (which it is) and not because Substack doubted it could quickly find someone to accept the offer it made to Saltz (it didn’t and doesn’t).” I agree with Abramson and his critique of the corporations limiting their creators’ connections with audiences, but his piece was still worth the skim. The takeaway for me is, if you’re working with anyone who prohibits you from promoting yourself, don’t work with them.

Still, having written my first book independently, I totally get where Saltz and Siegler are coming from as well. There’s a sense of luxury in what they’re talking about. For example, what if Saltz had no choice—what if, as Abramson suggests, New York magazine went out of business? Would it be so easy to turn down Substack? What if Siegler didn’t write for TechCrunch in his earlier days? (It also explains why Siegler took a job at Google Ventures—he makes a living outside of writing.) 

The Choice of Self Promotion

For folks who do want to make their money from their creative work, I think the beauty of the world is we get to actually choose now. I think about Tao Lin, when he was promoting his early work:

Signed to a small press, Lin could count on all the mainstream publicity a small press could command, namely none. He would have to make himself accountable for promoting his own work. As Eeeee Eee Eeee was being released, he crammed the inbox of the New York media-gossip website Gawker with so many emails—regarding his existence, his daily activities, his plans to mobilize an alleged “army of interns” to cover New York Starbucks outlets with flyers to promote his book—that the website finally devoted a post to him, though only to describe him as someone “who we absolutely despise” and his stunts as “retarded.”

He did what he needed to do to write. He raised an advance for himself and made an event of it. He courted controversy, built himself a reputation, and weaved himself into the fabric of culture. He doesn’t have to—or maybe can make the choice not to—do that anymore. That kind of self-reliance meant he was able to own his own marketing, which meant he also got to influence how his business was done. It also reminds me of Eddie Huang, who said to the New York Times:

I always wanted to be a director, but I had professors that told me, no one’s going to make a film with an Asian lead, an Asian story. I was told that by my former agency even after “Fresh Off the Boat” came out. The reason I sold sandwiches (at his restaurant Baohaus), the reason I went to books and hosted shows is because the door to film was not open to me. I had to basically create a cult of personality and create leverage within Hollywood so that people believed in me to make this film.

It might seem like a privilege for a creator or artist not to have to promote their own work. In Siegler’s case, that is certainly true—but it doesn’t matter to him, he chooses not to write books so he doesn’t have to promote himself. 

As for Saltz, who we opened with, he’s made the bet that he—and New York—can outlast the technology and business shifts that Substack is an agent of. Should his champions inside the organization retire before him (and he becomes an expensive line item), or should his own relevance and audience on social shrink, his income will be vulnerable. (Then again, that’s probably not the case. Artsy would probably hire him. Or with his reputation and relationships Saltz can, in the worst case, start an art business and thrive.)

Make the Case for Yourself

If you don’t have any corporations or distributors willing to work with you, then you have the chance to promote yourself. There’s no shame in it. And if there is, then don’t think of it as promoting yourself; you’re promoting the work you made, which has a life of its own. You’re giving it the best shot of surviving in this competitive world. 

We live in a time where that’s as meritocratic as it gets; if people aren’t giving you their attention yet, you are free to chase it. I generally think the best way to do that is to make something great, put it out there, and let people know by making the case for it. Spamming is not the same as self promotion.

The internet has made it a lot easier to publish, it would’ve required more time and energy just a couple of decades ago. The competition is also fiercer too. Try to make it as fun as you can; if Lil Nas X, Doja Cat, and Dwayne Johnson still need to do interviews, so will you. If you’re an entrepreneur, creator, or artist, consider it a part of your job description.

As something of a postscript, the irony is not lost on me that I’m about to promote my newsletter below. There are plenty of reasons I do it—some driven by business, others passion—and you’ll probably see a modal at my site soon encouraging you to subscribe. But that’s my choice! If you liked this piece—you’ve read it all the way to the bottom—then I hope you’re compelled to subscribe.

If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love my Best of Books newsletter, where I send three great books to your inbox every month. Thanks for reading.

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