Thursday, December 29, 2011

Pressfield on What Advertising Can Teach Writers

On his Web site, Steven Pressfield (author of The Profession) describes what he learned by working in advertising. Excerpt:
My first real job was in advertising. I worked as a copywriter for an agency called Benton & Bowles in New York City. An artist or entrepreneur's first job inevitably bends the twig. It shapes who you'll become. If your freshman outing is in journalism, your brain gets tattooed (in a good way) with who-what-where-when-why, fact-check-everything, never-bury-the-lead. If you start out as a photographer's assistant, you learn other stuff. If you plunge into business on your own, the education is about self-discipline, self-motivation, self-validation.

Advertising teaches its own lessons. For starters, everyone hates advertising. Advertising lies. Advertising misleads. It's evil, phony, it's trying to sell us crap we don't need. I can't argue with any of that, except to observe that for a rookie wordsmith, such obstacles can be a supreme positive. Why? Because you have to sweat blood to overcome them -- and in that grueling process, you learn your craft.

Here it is. Here's the #1 lesson you learn working in advertising (and this has stuck with me, to my advantage, my whole working life):

Nobody wants to read your [expletive].
Read the whole thing. Oh, this is a hard lesson to learn. Pressfield goes on to pound the proverbial nail on the head when he notes that every advertising client "is in love with his own product. The mistake he makes is believing that, because he loves it, everyone else will too." Can any of us, from the compositional dilettante to the grizzled professional novelist, argue that writers don't also fall prey to this impulse? Of course we do, hence our difficulties with honest feedback and negative reviews. Sure, the realization that nobody cares "about your one-act play, your Facebook page or your new sesame chicken joint at Canal and Tchopotoulis" can turn us sour and pessimistic. Or we can understand that "it isn't that people are mean or cruel. They're just busy." And this comprehension can transform us into empathetic writers who learn how to truly connect with an audience.

(Picture: CC 2010 by bbweb; Hat Tip: Tony Chavira)


Jim Murdoch said...

Preaching to the choir, son, preaching to the choir. I have been thinking a lot about this of late and this article really cuts to the chase. I was watching a comedian on TV over Xmas—I forget his name—but he was one of those quick-fire comics—bam! bam! bam!—and he was very funny but I was thinking about him after he finished his set and I couldn’t remember a single one of his jokes, not a one. After sitting quietly for a few minutes I did manage to recall one—“My dog has no dictionary. How does he spell ‘terrible’?”—but that was it. And I think that is how I feel about the Internet in general, assaulted by stuff as such a pace that I don’t have time to absorb what I’ve just seen or read before I get distracted by something new and shiny. I don’t buy many books online. I don’t even chase after free review copies because I can’t cope with the shelfful of books that I have at the moment. It would have to be a very special book for me to even consider buying it. I put books like that on my Amazon wish list and my relatives buy me them and I put them on my to-read shelf and never get around to them. And this is a guy who has all day to do whatever he pleases in. My heart goes out to my friends who still have to work for a living.

This year I decided to spend more time promoting myself especially through Facebook and so I joined some groups, gave it my best shot and last week I left all but one. Why? Because I got tired of the constant self-promotion and who were they promoting themselves to? People just like themselves. So what’s the point? I’ve been thinking this for a while but not in that defeatist tone, that weary, depressed way people say it, but as a serious question: What is the point? What am I going to achieve by this course of action and—and this is the most important point—what is the ratio of effort to return? There is a quid pro quo attitude online and in some respects that’s good—you comment on my blog, I respond to your comment—the status quo is maintained. The few people who buy my books are people I tend to have invested time in. I’ve taken an interest in their writing and we’ve developed something of a personal relationship, as much as these things exist online. Very few people buy my books “the old-fashioned way” and I don’t mean in a bookshop; what I mean by that is that they discover the book before they discover its author.

Next year I have a new novel out. It actually came out in November but we won’t have the website ready to take sales until January and the first review copies have just started arriving at their respective destinations. I’ve decided not to run around like a headless chicken trying to get people excited about the book because most of the sites that do book reviews are not going to be excited about a book in the Samuel Beckett tradition; they want to promote genre books, books about werewolves and vampires and zombies. I think it’s a wonderful little book—it does exactly what I wanted it to—but I’m realistic about how popular it’s going to be. We ordered 45 copies including review copies and if I get rid of them I’ll be pleased.

Loren Eaton said...

... what is the ratio of effort to return? There is a quid pro quo attitude online and in some respects that’s good—you comment on my blog, I respond to your comment—the status quo is maintained.

Yes, but in some ways it can be exhausting. It's very difficult to build a career like that on an indefinite basis.

I think Pressfield is talking more to younger, less established writers in that article. You seem to have a pretty darn good perspective on the whole matter.

For what it's worth, I'm quite interested in your new book. It's next on my reading list.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m going to be introducing the book on my blog over the next couple of weeks, Loren, but you can read the blurb and the opening chapter here. The sales page isn’t live yet. Hopefully within the next week.

Loren Eaton said...

Good to know, Jim! Many thanks.