Self-promotion might not have made it to the top seven deadliest sins—perhaps the concept needed to do a better job at self-promoting—but it sure would appear to be among them. Just look at Slate’s headline about the profile of novelist Jennifer Weiner in this week’s New Yorker: “Jennifer Weiner Critiques Sexism in Publishing, Promotes Self.” This comes after Jonathan Franzen, with whom Weiner has engaged in public feuds, lamented in The Guardian that, “literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer Weiner–ish self-promotion.” The anti-self-promotion crowd, frankly, doesn’t seem to get that this so-called sin isn’t just about bragging, humbly or not—it’s about maintaining one’s presence in the eyes of readers and employers.
In the past year, I’ve been asked by several outlets I write for to promote my writing for them on multiple social-media platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus. While it’s not written into the contracts, sharing these links is now considered part of my job as a freelance writer—and I don’t mind. The more people who read my work, presumably, the more likely I am to get hired to keep writing. When I do readings and writing workshops, it would be absolutely foolish to assume that people will simply hear about these events through some magical literary osmosis.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,” writes motivational author Marianne Williamson (a quote often misattributed to Nelson Mandela) in her book A Return to Love. “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?” Yet while this quote is popular enough to be emblazoned on Etsy wall decals, in several recent articles, male authors have put forward the exact opposite statement: that by playing up your accomplishments, you’re somehow devaluing the quality of your work. Truly worthy writers don’t need to bother.
This isn’t just a misguided idea, but a dangerous one. Especially in this age of social media, to deliberately keep quiet about your accomplishments not only deprives potentially interested readers of finding out what you’re up to, it signals that you don’t care enough about your work to share it with the world.
What exactly are these authors saying you should do instead? Precisely what Williamson urges us not to—play small, assume that through some magical process, readers will unearth your work amid the 600,000 to 1 million books published each year, and who knows how many articles. For these naysayers, promoting yourself and your work is weak, déclassé, and beneath them; instead, good writing, they collectively put forth, should magically find its own audience based simply on its strength. Novelist Sean Beaudoin kicked off the trend by lamenting the need to promote his books online. “Authors are a manufactured persona, often just as much of a commodity as their books,” he observed. Philip Lopate wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “There is nothing more becoming in an author than modesty,” while at Medium, Evolving SEO owner Dan Shure offered up, “Why I Will Never Ask You To Share My Content.” While these authors are male, this idea struck me as exactly the type of advice women are so often given about getting ahead—don’t be too boastful, be a team player, don’t take too much credit. This is relevant to people in a wide swath of careers. My first instinct was to find these words problematic, so I wanted to find out: Just how gendered is the notion of self-promotion?
Michelle C. Haynes, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at University of Massachusetts Lowell and Associate at the Center for Women and Work, co-authored the 2013 study “It Had to Be You (Not Me)!”, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Haynes confirmed that women are indeed less likely to toot their own horns than men. “In our series of studies, women actually deferred credit to their male teammate under a verity of conditions, which suggested that they actually thought their teammate performed better on the task than they had.” Another reason Haynes offered for the gender disparity: “Women are aware of the extent to which it is inappropriate to self promote, and as such refrain from doing so.” She concludes that for women, this issue “is a double- edged sword. On the one hand, self-promotion is a part of getting ahead; on the other hand women who engage in this practice are judged harshly.”
So how can you go about promoting yourself in a positive, empowering way? Novelist Justine Musk, whose blog’s tagline is “because you’re a creative badass,” puts forth an idea that might help circumvent the stereotype of women (or men) as overly boastful. Says Musk, “Social media is about finding a way to tell this ongoing, multiplatform kind of story that resonates with your so-called audience because it’s about them, it’s not about you. It serves the audience, not you. Not all marketing is bad marketing. Good marketing is about making an emotional connection with the people whom you are meant to serve.”
Rather than what Kat Stoeffel calls the “faux-bashful undersell,” you need to truly own your work, not just go through the motions without any genuine emotion behind it. As blogger, entrepreneur, and The Fire Starter Sessions author Danielle LaPorte has written, “If you’re not passionate about your service or your product, you shouldn’t be selling it in the first place.” Forbes.com contributor Margie Warrell posited a similar idea in a post titled “Self Promotion is Not Crucial (Unless You Want to Get Ahead!),” writing, “Reframe your experience and expertise in terms of the value you have to contribute. Doing so enables you to shift from making your toot about you, to how you can better contribute to the success of others as well as your organization’s bottom line.”
As an anthology editor, I read hundreds of cover letters a year. Most are simple and straightforward, but invariably there are a few that include something to the effect of “I don’t know if you can use this…” or “This probably isn’t what you’re looking for.” Regardless of gender, these kinds of statements mean putting your worst foot forward. This is relevant whether you’re in a creative or business field. The May 2013 Conference Board of Canada report Women in Leadership: Perceptions and Priorities for Change by Donna Burnett Vachon and Carrie Lavis, found based on interviews with over 800 men and women, that women’s lack of confidence in themselves is part of what holds them back. According to a Women 2.0 article on the study, “Compared to men who are more aggressive in putting their names forward for positions where they do not have the requisite skills or experience, women tend to ‘self-select out.’”
If you go the route of assuming readers, accolades, money, or promotions will simply come to you by staying meek and quiet, you’re likely to miss out. It makes me sad to read an author of any gender—in this case, female author D.T. Dyllin—write, “When my book first came out last month I can’t tell you how many of my friends were surprised to find out about it.”
Of course the line between bombarding your followers with every iota of information about your book and practical self-promotion is going to be subjective, and each of us needs to figure out where we feel most comfortable. But the reality is that creative people, once they put their work out into the world, become businesspeople—which is also not a dirty word.
So perhaps we should follow the lead of thinkers like Musk, LaPorte, and Warrell and see self-promotion not as a soul-searching, agonizing, shameful chore, but instead a celebration—not just of yourself, but of what you, and your work, represent.