The Greater Good

When I was a waiter my bosses always wanted me to “upsell.” This is the practice of talking customers into buying an appetizer they hadn’t ordered or recommending the Australian lobster tail rather than the halibut. It makes a certain sense from a business standpoint. We were a fine dining restaurant and wanted to “maximize sales” on each table. From a waiter’s standpoint it made sense also: the higher my sales, the more tips I’d make.

Yet I refused to upsell. I focused instead on helping the customers have the best possible experience they could have. I believed that if they felt as though I were trying to squeeze an extra few bucks out of them, they would feel more used than cared for. I reasoned that I could make just as much money by caring more about service than sales.

I did not know it then, but I was getting a glimpse into a dynamic that is always at play in every business arrangement – even writing. Namely, an individual’s needs versus society’s needs. Customers, or society, don’t give two figs about the restaurant’s bottom line. Customers want to enjoy themselves. A business, meanwhile, wants to make money. Whether I’m waiting tables, running a restaurant, or selling books, it can seem sometimes as though my only focus is extracting as much money from other people as possible, so that I can go on living and writing.

In a way, my choice not to upsell was a kind of experiment. What if, I reasoned, the customer’s needs could be my own? What if there was no difference between what I needed and what other people needed? As it happens, the more I focused just on service and not on sales, the more money I made. It was a happy arrangement.

But if I’m honest, the choice not to upsell served my most immediate needs as well. I didn’t like how it felt when I tried to sell rather than serve. It felt dishonest. Service, meanwhile, always felt good. After all, I was a human first and a waiter second, just as the people I was serving were humans first and customers second. Service became a means of connecting on a human level rather than a commercial level.

I started having success as a writer when I saw it as service, not sales. Instead of asking what I could write that could get someone to buy what I’d written, I asked myself what I would most like to share with other people. What if the kind of story that uplifted me, that served my life, might serve others? You already know how this story ends, because you already know that we all meet each other in our shared desire to know life as an act of love.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Adventures in Marketing

I was twenty-two and had written a batch of poems in a brief creative dash. It had been years since I had finished so much as a short story, and the satisfaction of having something completed, even if it was only eight lines, was addictive. Plus most of my poems were like little monologues, and I loved the theater, so it was a happy discovery that I could marry these art forms.

My mother’s friend Tina also loved poetry, so much so that she had started her own literary journal. Word trickled down to me that Tina would be hosting a poetry reading at the University of Rhode Island, and if I wanted to I could participate. I was quite nervous waiting my turn there in the classroom with all the other poets, but when the moment arrived, and I laid my poems on the lectern and started reading, it was just more theater, and it was great fun sharing these little pieces that had so pleased me with other people and seeing that these people seemed to be pleased as well.

A week after the poetry reading I got a call from Tina. What a success the reading had been! You were a hit, she said. The actor in me enjoyed that. I would do another poetry reading shortly thereafter and I enjoyed it every bit as much as the first. Then I got another call from Tina. She wanted to publish some of my poems in the upcoming edition of her journal. Would that be okay? I said it most certainly would be okay. And that was how my work was published for the first time.

Here is what I knew back then: I knew that I loved to read certain poets, and that I loved to write poetry. I loved both the freedom poetry afforded me, as well as the economy it required, and I loved the energy of performing. What I did not know was that those poetry readings were my first adventures in marketing. My poems were published because I had found a means to expose my work to other people such that opportunities that had not previously been available were now available.

Except it didn’t feel like marketing because I wasn’t trying to sell anything, or get published, or get exposure. I wasn’t trying to get anything. I just wanted to share something that felt good to share. That is all “marketing” needs to be. In fact, to call it anything else is a lie. To call it anything else is to say that I do not love what I love, and that I do not believe the world will be better off with more of what I love in it – which, though I have spent many years doubting this is so, remains the only truth to which I can reliably return.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Love Story

Before an author can find her readers, she must first find her story. She finds her story by asking herself, “What is the best story I can tell? What is so interesting to me that I cannot take my attention from it? What killer must I see brought to justice, or what woman must find love with what man?” The writer asks and answers these questions, and asks and answers these questions, until the story is told.

Now the author the needs an audience. She wrote this story to satisfy her own curiosity and then share what she found with others. The story is really not complete until someone else has read it, has filled in the blank spaces between the author’s brush strokes with their own imagination. So the author tweets about her story, blogs her story, Instagrams about her story, and travels from bookstore to bookstore talking about her story. By and by she discovers she has a readership.

And perhaps she does a little market research and asks those readers, “How did you find my story?” Some report stumbling over her book in a bookstore, others heard about it from a friend, still others from Facebook or Twitter or The New York Times. Yet all these answers are misleading. These answers say little more about how the reader really found a story than a wedding says about a marriage.

The way the reader really found the story was by asking, “What do I most want to read? What kind of story would be so interesting to me that I couldn’t put it down?” As she asks and answers this question, the reader by and by finds the story, and finishes in her own imagination what the author began in hers. The author-audience connection is in this way a love relationship, two strangers guided together by the single organizing principal of the universe.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

How to Happily Write a Query Letter

If you’ve written a book, and you’d like to publish it traditionally, then you will probably want to find an agent. The best way to find an agent is by recommendations from writers who already have representation. Chances are, you don’t know a writer, and so your next best option is to attend writers’ conferences where you can pitch your book to an agent in person. But if conferences aren’t an option, or are an option you have already exhausted, you will have to write a query you can send to prospective agents – and if you are like ninety percent of the writers I know, you will dislike this experience profoundly.

I was one such writer. I loved writing books; I loved talking to people about the books I’d written, but I found the query letter an awkward and unnatural form of communication. How can I possibly condense the rich tapestry of my novel into two paragraphs that could excite a complete stranger? I griped about the query letters I had to write, I doubted their efficacy, and was never surprised when sample chapters were not requested. What was most frustrating was that when I met agents at conferences and shared my enthusiasm for my book like a human being, rather than some ad in a catalogue, they always requested sample chapters. The problem, I told myself, was the letters. They were just too short.

The problem was not the letters. The problem was that I believed my job was to know what other people liked. That was the whole point of the letters, wasn’t it – to excite enthusiasm in an agent? Yet I had no idea what anyone else liked. I never have. I know what I like; I know what excites me and what holds my attention. Everyone else’s desires and curiosities, my friends and family included, remain necessarily mysterious to me. What other people like, ultimately, is none of my business.

Eventually I decided to write my query letters exactly the way I wrote my stories. I would write the letters to please me. I would write two paragraphs about why I loved my book, about why I spent two or three years of my creative life working on it. To do so, I would have to forget the agents and remember why the book had been so interesting to me. When I wrote from this place, I found confidence I had only previously believed was possible while writing stories.

The results were immediate – by which I mean I immediately enjoyed writing the letters. In fact, I enjoyed writing the letters enough that I had to remind myself why I had written them. By and by I sent them out and got those other results. But by then I understood the order of things and so was as unsurprised when the agents asked for chapters as I had once been when they had not.

We writers like to be alone for good reasons. To do this work we must turn our attention toward what we know best: ourselves. As much as we love to share our work with other people, those other people can become debilitating distractions if we let them. It’s not their fault, of course; it’s ours. To believe we must know more than what it is we love makes us lose sight of the story life delivered us here to tell.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Creating Opportunities

You may have heard the expression, “create your own opportunities.” To me, this sort of tidy aphorism sometimes feels lovely in its can-doism, but dubious in its application. An opportunity is something that comes to you and upon which you act; how can you create something that comes to you? Here’s how.

A few years ago I was interviewed on The Back Porch Writer, a Blogtalk Radio show hosted Kori Miller. This opportunity came about after Kori wrote me to thank me for one of my recent episodes of Author2Author. After a friendly back-and-forth I mentioned I had a book out and would she like me to be a guest on her show. She said yes, and we scheduled our interview.

But that was not how I actually created this opportunity. I had actually created this opportunity, unbeknownst to me, about a year earlier. Kori began our interview by asking me what had motivated me to start Author2Author, and I explained about wanting to expand the format of my interviews and so on. Then Kori told me that she had stumbled on Author2Author one day, liked what she heard, and thought, “I want to do what he’s doing!” And so she started Back Porch Writer. This was how I “created my own opportunity.” I did what I loved and offered it to people through the means available to me, and acted in a timely fashion when that love was returned to me.

After hearing Kori’s story, I was reminded again of what I can do and what I can’t do. Madness waits for anyone certain he must build his every opportunity board-by-board. Creation is always a group effort, a fact I frequently ignore. I awake from uneasy dreams full of doubt and pessimism, the field of possibility an inscrutable and unfriendly bog. Oh, the misery of forgetting. To stand in loneliness, convinced I must make the world alone, while feeling an emptiness that is actually other people’s efforts and then calling myself incomplete.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Night I Learned to Enjoy Marketing

I had agreed to be a part of something called “Wine & Words.” This is a yearly event held at a lovely outdoor mall in Issaquah, Washington, where for a nominal fee, folks could taste offerings from various winemakers, each of whom had set up temporary shop in a different store. Oh, and these same people could also meet local authors, who had also set up shop in the various stores. I was one such local author, and it soon became clear to me that the event should have been called “WINE & words.” Free booze, it turns out, shines unnaturally bright in the mind of the average adult consumer.

The book I was promoting was called Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion. This is a collection of short inspirational essays and stories about writing and the creative process. It’s not a General Public kind of book. So I sat on my little stool beside my stack of books, watching a parade of friendly strangers shuffle past in a beeline for the winemaker’s table, and then turn and make a beeline for the door and more free wine.

I talked to one of the employees until there was nothing left for us to talk about. More people shuffled in and out. Sometimes they would glance my way curiously as they left in search of more wine. Finally, just to break the boredom, the next time a guy glanced my way, I said, “You like to write?”

“Kind of. I was thinking of starting a blog for my business.”

I picked up a copy of the book. “You might like this then.” I looked down at the book and thought about what I’d like to say. I hadn’t planned on selling the book. I’m not a salesman, after all; I’m a writer. But I did love this little book. Just looking again at its cover I was reminded how much I loved it and why I’d written it in the first place.

“See, every writer has the same challenge,” I said. “They have to face a blank page and decide what should go on it. Everyone’s page is equally blank. You have to have the confidence to know that what you want to share with the world is worth sharing. Everyone worries about this; everyone deals with doubt. Doesn’t matter who you are. So each of these little essays and stories is just to remind you that all you have to do is know what you love and let the rest take care of itself.”

I was getting up a good head of steam, which is to say I was enjoying talking about it. I was enjoying talking about it in precisely the same way I had enjoyed writing it. Which is why I was a little caught off guard when the guy interrupted me to say, “I’ll take a copy.”

And that was the moment I understood what people really mean when they talk about marketing. Up until that moment I thought I disdained it because up until that moment I had believed that marketing, and sales in general, was about either knowing what other people liked or somehow manipulating someone into liking what I’d written. I have no idea what other people like and I have no idea how to make anyone do anything.

But I do know what I like, and I do know why I wrote what I wrote – and that, it turns out, is all I need to know. Marketing is just another opportunity for writers to connect with what they love to write, so they might share what they love with other people. In this way the real difference between writing and marketing can be strangely negligible. It’s all communication, and the only way to reach another person is to get out of their heads and get into my own heart.

 

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Herd

Writers sometimes make reluctant capitalists, but whether we wish to discuss it or not, we are responsible for creating a product that we must in turn sell to the general public. The knock on capitalism, generally speaking, is its cold heartedness, a necessarily unfeeling engine of commerce whose deity, The Market, rights all wrongs through a Darwinian winnowing of the entrepreneurial herd. We writers, meanwhile, usually like to view ourselves as caring, empathetic people. Empathy is more or less in the creative writer’s job description; how else to render believably all those people who aren’t us?

But there is something beautifully democratic about capitalism that every business owner, including writers, at some point understands. We all have our own crowd. We all have the people we eat and drink with, the people we seek out at parties. Society, in some ways, remains an extension of the high school cafeteria, with everyone gravitating to their respective tables. It’s not always inspiring, but it’s practical; easier to talk to people you like than to those you don’t.

But then you become a writer, and someone from another lunch table does something unexpected: they buy your book. In fact, you might look up to realize that only people from other lunch tables are buying your book. Now these people aren’t so bad after all. And not merely because they’re putting quarters in your pocket. When you meet your readers you discover for whom, beside yourself, you were actually writing.

Though I was the sort who bounced between different lunch tables, I have my preferences. While it is gratifying in a way to learn that someone I know and perhaps admire likes my work, there is something singularly uplifting about a stranger finding comfort in it. On the savannah, herd animals seek safety in numbers. Writers must go it alone to do our work, and our safety, in the end, depends on our willingness to accept all comers, to welcome round us anyone whose questions match our own. You see life then for what it is: a collection of curiosity, whose form must yield by and by to the answers received.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Adventures in Marketing

I was twenty-two and had written a batch of poems in a brief creative dash. It had been years since I had finished so much as a short story, and the satisfaction of having something completed, even if it was only eight lines, was addictive. Plus most of my poems were like little monologues, and I loved the theater, so it was a happy discovery that I could marry these art forms.

My mother’s friend Tina also loved poetry, so much so that she had started her own literary journal. Word trickled down to me that Tina would be hosting a poetry reading at the University of Rhode Island, and if I wanted to I could read as well. I was quite nervous waiting my turn there in the classroom with all the other poets, but when the moment arrived, and I laid my poems on the lectern and started reading, it was just more theater, and it was great fun sharing these little pieces that had so pleased me with other people and seeing that these people seemed to be pleased as well.

A week after the poetry reading I got a call from Tina. What a success the reading had been! You were a hit, she said. The actor in me enjoyed that. I would do another poetry reading shortly thereafter and I enjoyed it every bit as much as the first. Then I got another call from Tina. She wanted to publish some of my poems in the upcoming edition of her journal. Would that be okay? I said it most certainly would be okay. And that was how my work was published for the first time.

Here is what I knew back then: I knew that I loved to read certain poets, and that I loved to write poetry. I loved both the freedom poetry afforded me, as well as the economy it required, and I loved the energy of performing. What I did not know was that those poetry readings were my first adventures in marketing. My poems were published because I had found a means to expose my work to other people such that opportunities that had not previously been available were now available.

Except it didn’t feel like marketing because I wasn’t trying to sell anything, or get published, or get exposure. I wasn’t trying to get anything. I just wanted to share something that felt good to share. That is all “marketing” needs to be. In fact, to call it anything else is a lie. To call it anything else is to say that I do not love what I love, and that I do not believe the world will be better off with more of what I love in it – which, though I have spent many years doubting this is so, remains the only truth to which I can reliably return.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Lazy Writer’s Guide to Building a Platform

My agent was getting ready to submit the first non-fiction book I’d written, which meant we were busy cobbling together a book proposal. Fiction writers – which I had been before this – don’t bother with book proposals, so I was a bit skeptical of the whole process. Somehow I had to not only explain what the book was but also demonstrate that there was a market for it. Lacking a crystal ball, I didn’t understand how this was realistically possible.

“You talk about your platform,” my agent explained. “Those are the first people who will buy the book.”

“My platform?”

“You know: Author magazine, the blog, the interviews, Author2Author, your teaching. Your platform.”

“That stuff? I don’t know if that’s a platform.”

“I deal with platforms and promotion all the time. It’s a good platform.”

“Really?”

“Yes!”

I took her word for it. Until then, I did not think I had a platform, because I had heard that an author must build a platform. Building something seemed like a lot of work. I like doing stuff, but I don’t like work. Doing stuff becomes work when I don’t want to do what has to be done. So I guess I’m lazy in that way, but it’s all right because I still get a lot of stuff done – like all the things that comprise my supposed platform. I built that platform by just doing what I wanted to do.

Just doing what I want to do is a defining preference I share with many of the writers I know. It’s a practical one too, because to write a book or a story or a poem or an essay is a discipline of asking myself over and over again, “What is most interesting to me right now?” My writing is never so alive and original and, yes, salable, as when I am hot on the trail of what interests me most. I cannot manufacture this interest; it is either present and I follow it, or it is not and I don’t.

I can’t simply turn off this practical laziness when I leave my desk, either. It has brought me too much happiness. Actually, it has brought me all my happiness. Which is why a little rebellion always stirs in my heart whenever I hear some well-intentioned expert tell me what I have to do to have success in this very competitive business. All I ever have to do is follow my curiosity. It is the only thing that has had led me anywhere I want to be.

So if you are like me, and you love to write but you are a little lazy, and you have heard that you need a platform, and you think you don’t know how build one, don’t worry. Writing has already taught you everything you need to know about building platforms. I go could go on about blogs and websites and mailing lists, but all of that is useless until you are curious. Without your curiosity – which doesn’t care about hits, or likes, or retweets, or sales – nothing you start will be finished. You will rebel, and feel bad because you haven’t done what needs to be done, and maybe even tell yourself that you aren’t getting anywhere.

And so you go back to writing, and eventually you finish something, and you wonder, “How could I share this other people?” And you find that question interesting, which is to say you are curious, and now you are on your way.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Your Greatest Resource

I sometimes work with students or clients who’ve published independently and want to know how to market their novel or memoir. I rarely have the sort of answers these writers are looking for at the ready, and so I was glad when I stumbled on this post from author and blogger Molly Greene: Book Promotions That Work. If you’ve just published something, and you’re wondering what you should do next, this is a short but handy list.

It’s a good place to start, and a lot of writers need a good place to start because a lot of writers have exactly zero interest in marketing. Most writers just want to write. As well they should. Even with the good days and bad days, writing is mostly good. It feels good to sink into that dream. It feels good to forget about your day and your job and your bills and follow the stream of a story. It feels good to stop worrying what other people think about this or that and only wonder what you think of this and that.

And it feels good to listen to your imagination and intuition. They come up with such interesting ideas, ideas you would never have come up with bumping around your day, grousing about the government or your in-laws. How reassuring, when you go deep into that dream called a story and the imagination and intuition take over; how nice to know you don’t have to come up with every little idea by yourself.

Which is why, I when I teach marketing, I don’t start with lists, even good one’s like Molly’s. I don’t want any author to lose track of their greatest resource. This resource is not on any website or in any class or any writing magazine or writing book. It can be found exactly where the stories you are marketing were found, and it is always waiting there with another great idea.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter