Self-promotion sucks. It’s also completely unavoidable if you ever plan on working freelance. Even if you’re a staffer somewhere, there are plenty of companies now who really expect you to be promoting your own work. Self-promotion is a necessary annoyance.
When I started writing professionally, print media dominated the web variety. Back then, the job of a freelance writer was simpler. You pitched. If your story was accepted, you wrote it, you did a basic edit, you turned it into your editor. Everything after that was out of your control. Whether or not people bought the magazine wasn’t your problem. You would never know with any sort of certainty how many people read your work. Your editors didn’t really have a solid answer for that and, in a way it didn’t matter.
Web is a completely different beast. The editors who assign you stories know exactly how many people are reading your work. The more of an audience you can bring with you to every assignment, the more valuable you are as a freelancer. In that respect, writing for the web is more like working in TV. Web has pageviews, TV has ratings, both provide a pretty good estimate of how much of an audience you actually have. This shift doesn’t just affect writers. Visual artists, musicians, essentially everyone in a creative field, has to do the same thing. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, or a bad thing, it’s just the new model. Get used to it.
The hard part for me has always been building an audience. I might be better a little at it than a lot of others, simply because I started out working in nightclubs where the size of your audience also matters. I know how to promote, but I’m uncomfortable doing it. Because of that, I made a mistake. I’m telling you about that now because I have a feeling there are a lot of other people in the same boat.
My approach was always to promote the story. That made absolute sense. The story I wrote is more important than me. The people involved in that story are doing things that are incredibly awesome. I’m just the writer telling you about that. In some ways, that worked. A lot of those stories did incredibly well. That’s great, but there’s a downside to that. You can have a massive hit of a story and, most of the people who skimmed it won’t realize that you’re the writer. That much is obvious by the amount of people who will refer to you by the wrong gender in comments when your first name isn’t unisex.
The hardest lesson I learned when I went freelance was that I had a lot of hit stories to my name, but people didn’t know who I was. Getting a potential client’s attention was still a problem. I was right back where I was when I was in grad school. Semi-anonymous. That remains a problem. People contact me because they want me to help them get the word out about something. Specifically, they want it in certain publications. That I’m writing it doesn’t really matter. I rarely get emails from people looking for a writer.
I can’t find a really good solution to the problem. Just about every “social networking strategy advice” story I’ve read is completely irrelevant to what I do. I also have a pretty good list of things I won’t do (no glut of self portraits, no troll baiting, no excessive name-dropping). I don’t know what the next step is, but I have to figure it out soon.