In my day job as a career counselor, I am a professional networker. Among other things, I spend a lot of time going to job fairs and schmoozing with employers, trying to convince them to hire my clients. I wear a spiffy suit and carry a shiny black leather portfolio full of business cards and other people’s resumes. I rock a mean handshake-smile combo, and the small talk just rolls off my tongue. It’s with no arrogance that I can objectively say, I’m really good at what I do.
…Until it’s time to market myself.
See, here’s the thing. It’s easy to sell a product that I’m not personally invested in. Oh, I’m rooting for my clients, and it makes me happy when I entice a big-name employer to pay attention to them… but it doesn’t really hurt me if they say no. I’m not likely to develop a reputation throughout the human resources world that will dog me until I retire. I won’t go home and cry if I can’t get Huge Silicon Valley Company X to accept a few resumes. But all of this is true of me as an author. There are only so many novel publishers, agents, etc. in the fantasy genre, so if one of them says no, it does hurt me. If I schmooze badly, I will develop a reputation in the spec fic community, because it’s tiny and incestuous and everybody knows everybody. Sure, if my manuscripts are good, they’ll land me a publisher, positive reviews, etc., anyway. But in today’s cutthroat publishing industry, this fact cannot be ignored: the book may be the product, but the author’s name is the brand — and brand marketing is crucial for long-term success. After all, how many readers are willing to shell out $24.95 for a hardcover by an unknown newbie author? Not many — and not nearly as many as are willing to pay that much for a hardcover by, say, Laurell K. Hamilton, or Stephen King, or J. K. Rowling. These names have selling power; ergo they are a brand. And as with any brand, it sells products better if potential buyers associate good things with it — things far and beyond the quality of the product itself.
Publishers, editors, and agents know this. I recently got the chance to see the marketing catalog sent out by my publisher to retail booksellers, and it was illuminating. Each page was devoted to a forthcoming book — but a third of that page was devoted to factoids about the author, above and beyond the typical bio. In my case, this included statements like “The author is heavily involved with the online fantasy community,” and other interesting tidbits which I assume were meant to make a prospective retailer see me as a sure thing and immediately order fifty units of my book. The page also included my photograph. Now, in the career counseling world, we discourage job seekers from adding photos to their resumes. This used to be standard operating procedure twenty or thirty years ago — until it became clear that employers would sometimes use these photos to discriminate against women, people of color, the elderly, or even (ahem) the unattractive. It wasn’t always a conscious thing; people simply made decisions based on their feelings about certain demographic or aesthetic factors. So I felt a curious sort of disjunct as I looked at the page being used to convince sellers to buy my book and realized, Wow, hope whoever’s looking at this likes the way I look. Because even that matters, on some level.
So here I am, a newbie author, going to conventions and author events, with all of this knowledge weighing heavily on my mind. And I can’t help freaking out a little whenever I try to schmooze, because each time I shake a hand, every time I try to dredge up small talk, there’s a little voice inside me shouting, “Sound witty! Stay calm! Crap, you should’ve checked for spinach in your teeth!” and “Remember, every person you meet is a potential reader, reviewer, or referrer!” and “IF YOU SCREW THIS UP YOU’LL HAVE TO CHANGE YOUR NAME AND START YOUR WHOLE CAREER OVER.” So. Right. No pressure.
And sometimes I fumble. I forget names, stutter, get tongue-tied. I try to come up with clever things to say and instead babble inanities. Or worse, I respond to other people’s cleverness with silence, because I’m so desperate to make a good accounting of myself that I miss their jokes, etc., while I’m frantically trying to remember their name.
Now, I started to recognize this problem in myself a few years ago, and in proper counselor fashion I’ve been trying to overcome it. Since I’m lucky enough to live in New York where such events are frequent, I attend more small, intimate networking events than I do big cons, because I’m way more comfortable with a small group than I am trying to “work a crowd”. I’ve implemented stress-management techniques that are tailored to my personality (e.g., limiting my schmoozing to about 5 minutes at a stretch before I retreat or switch from small talk to some topic I’m comfortable with). I hang out with people who are better schmoozers than me, and I learn what I can from them — though I’ve come to realize not all of their techniques will work for me. And that’s OK, because I’ve also become more accepting of my strengths and weaknesses. For example, when I go to cons, I often volunteer to be on panels, or work for the con in some customer service capacity, because I find public speaking easier than one-on-one schmoozing. (Yeah, I know, but it’s true.) Also, I have multiple blogs and participate in the Magic District because I’m much better at expressing myself in text than I am verbally. The advent of the blogosphere is really the best thing that could’ve happened for people like me, because it allows me to talk to an audience of thousands without once worrying about spinach in my teeth.
(It’s there right now, you know. Whole bushels of the stuff. Nyah nyah.)
All that said, you know what my greatest nightmare is? I’m going to admit it here, because — another counseling technique — facing your fear is one way to try and overcome it. My fear is that I will win a Hugo, Nebula, or some other big award one day. No, bear with me. And then, when I go up on the stage to accept the award and give a speech, I am utterly convinced that I will babble something so inane that the entire SF world will decide I’m too stupid to live, and start throwing tomatoes. And as I attempt to flee the vegetable apocalypse, I will slip on a tomato skin and fall, breaking the award and possibly several bones. I will thenceforth be known as N. K. “Tomato” Jemisin until I die.
What? Oh, like you don’t have stupid nightmares too. OK, let’s try this: I’ve shared my greatest fear. What’s yours, re networking? I can’t be the only person here who gets anxious about this stuff.
(Oh, and, uh, don’t ever vote for me for an award, OK? No, really. I mean it.)