Do We Have an Obligation to our Books To Market Them? A Legal Precedent Involving a Family Shrine Provides Some Food for Thought

Kim Velk

Kim Velk

a guest post by Kim Velk

Note from Mary: I am delighted to welcome guest blog-poster Kim Velk, a regular reader of (and comment contributor to) The Militant Writer. Our exchanges via the comments and then email led to me to ask her to put her thoughts down on paper for the enjoyment and provocation of us all. (Update April 16: Kim’s first novel, UP, BACK, AND AWAY, is now available! Yesterday was publication day! Congratulations!) Here’s Kim:

In my day job I am a lawyer. And while I don’t practice corporate law, I have often found myself thinking of the fundamental idea underpinning the law of corporations – and never moreso than when I consider how I am going to approach the task of informing the indifferent world that I have a book (or soon will) that I want it to buy.

If you’re reading Mary’s blog, you are very likely in a similar circumstance: that is, trying to figure out how – or maybe even whether – you should peddle your book to a public that, let it be said, really doesn’t care. This is a not a happy place. The writing part was hard enough, but at least we signed up for that. This next part, this selling bit, that’s another matter. It falls somewhere on the scale between distasteful and odious (at least for a lot of us). Our writerly unicorn spirits aren’t equipped for the rough and tumble of the floor of the bourse! We wrote because we’re writers! We’re not ad men, or PR people, or entrepreneurs.…

Yet, even for those who are traditionally published, we all know (or have heard), that the big world of books demands author participation in the selling part these days. For the self-published (we the semi-despised, the rich pickings for those with author marketing services to sell), we are really on our own. No agent or marketing team for us. If our poor little books are going to go anywhere, we’re the ones who have got to shift them.

I don’t have advice on the best way to do that. (Waving at Mary here. Thanks Mary for your excellent advice on this blog). In fact, I haven’t even tried to sell a book yet and I may be altogether crap at it. The task looms in my immediate future, however, and as I have tried to face it, I have turned to the guiding light of, yes, corporate law.

That’s what I came here to share:  an idea that I hope may at least put some heart into those of us who quail before that dismal marketing endeavor. Courage, mes amis! The Privy Council worked out a little trick of the mind a long time ago that may come in handy for us now.

Legal Fiction Is a Mighty Fiction

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council served historically as the highest court of appeal from Britain’s colonies and it still serves in that capacity for “Crown Dependencies, the British Overseas Territories, and a number of Commonwealth member countries.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

I went to law school at McGill University in Montreal and as a result I was exposed to a lot of legal precedents generated by the English House of Lords and the Privy Council. (Canadians could still take appeals over to London until after World War II). A friend of mine took the French language corporations class (one of the awkward charms of the McGill faculté de droit is its bilingual nature.) She told me that in the first lecture, the very correct Belgian professor explained how, once upon a time, a family in India fell to feuding over who would have what duties and responsibilities for maintaining the shrine of a family idol.

No one was doing what he was supposed to do. Offerings were skipped, dust and dirt collected. “L’idole” was being shamefully neglected while the family feuded and pointed fingers. The dispute was at last carried to the Privy Council back in England. In a powerful flash of insight, some brilliant councilor required the litigants to take a new approach to their god. They were to “incorporate” it – that is, imagine it as having a body, a corpus, as being an entity unto itself, one that was separate from its keepers and one that was owed duties of care, loyalty, and good faith.

The councilor thus re-imagined an inanimate thing as a real, living thing, and one that required something like a guardianship. Its keepers were recast into what would eventually morph into directors of a corporation. As such, they were obliged not to look out for their own selfish interests, but for the best interests of the entity they served. Et voila – the legal fiction gave birth to the “legal person.”

Fast forward a few hundred years, and this idea has remade the world. Of course the history of corporate law is a lot more complicated than I just made it seem and any real corporate lawyer or legal scholar who stumbles in here is probably shaking his or her head over something I have said, but the Big Idea is what I wanted to convey and only for the limited purpose I’ve already described. (By the way, the occupy Wall Street protestors who railed against corporate personhood were really missing something basic in their attack. This trope of the mind [and the law] has made many things possible that might never have been achieved: universities, big events, nonprofits, you name it. Of course, it has also allowed lots of evildoers to hide behind their corporate structures, but that’s someone else’s blog post.)

One Way Forward

OK class. What does all this mean for us? I think it means that we might best approach the business of book marketing by, at least some of the time, separating ourselves from our work – by thinking not in terms of what we can face, or what we want to do, but what is our duty to the book? What is in its best interests?

Hmm. What might this mean? Doing what we can to see the book reaches its potential? Getting it to an audience for whom it will have some meaning, or to whom it will give understanding, joy, or entertainment? (We all gotta serve someone, like the song says, and this includes our new little rectangular or digital legal people.) Perhaps also securing for them some future? (They will live after us, even unto our children’s children.) I think this question of goals requires some soul searching for us all. Once those are identified, the next question is: how is this to be done?

As noted, I’m still trying to work this out for myself. One thing I hasten to add, despite all I have said here, is that the public imagination does not much separate a creator from his or her work. What we do by way of marketing will have repercussions for our books. This may mean forbearance in some arenas. As Mary has noted, if we turn off readers with a lot of ham-fisted hard selling on Facebook or Twitter, for instance, we are likely doing our books a disservice. We really have to think about what’s best for them – and the answers may not be easy to find.

Maybe we owe our creations a little bit of money, if we can scratch it together, to spend on marketing (if we can find a reputable vendor). Maybe we need to try to interest editors of various publications, or an agent who will take on the book or its writer. All that is TBD. The only thing that this concept makes plain is that doing nothing is not an option. Nothing = a dereliction of duty.

And in Conclusion…

We have sweated over these books, and lavished our care and our attention on them. (If you haven’t, never mind about everything I just said. Do yourself and the world a favor and just put whatever you have written back on the flash drive and leave it there.) For the rest of us, our books live now, and they are owed some respect – from us first of all. To be cringing or pusillanimous about introducing them, in the best way we can manage, to the world beyond our writing rooms is a disservice to ourselves, and maybe worse, to our creations.

Kim Velk lives in Vermont with her husband, two children, and a terrier.  She works by day as a lawyer.  Her first book, Up, Back, and Away, is about a Texas teenager sent back to England in 1928 (on a vintage English three speed).  It will be out on Amazon later this month.  She blogs at www.quartersessions.blogspot.com and www.lasthouse.blogspot.com

11 responses

    • We absolutely do. No question about that, Brian! (I once saw a “writer” friend post a comment on FaceBook that said, “Wow! Someone has just bought my latest book. I guess I’d better edit it.” I was flabbergasted. It is people like that who are making it almost impossible for those of us who write serious books, hire editors and book designers, and sweat bullets over every sentence, to get noticed by those who look askance at self-publishing. And they are legion.)

  1. I don’t feel any moral duty to promote my book, but in the absence of any effort from my publisher, I had no choice but to do so. I’m not ashamed to say that I want people to buy my book and, I hope, to praise it. In order for that to happen, I had to try to promote it. Otherwise, writing it is pointless, at least for me.

    I dislike self-promotion not because I’m shy or overly self-effacing, but because it requires a lot of effort, it is not an interesting or entertaining activity, and, for the most part, my efforts did little to drive sales of my book.

  2. With all due respect, that’s a rather silly question, especially considering the surge of self-published books. Writers invest a great deal of time and energy into their work, so it only stands to reason they should do what they can to market their books. Established writers may have the luxury of turning over marketing and publicity to others, but newbies don’t enjoy such privileges. For me, it’ll be notably challenging since I’m not a people person and don’t consider myself a salesman. But, writing fiction is all I’ve ever wanted to do with my life, so I’ll do whatever it takes within reason to accomplish that.

    • Thanks for this, Alejandro. I think that Kim is exploring a conceit — a possible way of looking at the situation for those who are having difficulty with promotion because it seems too self-serving or arrogant. She is saying that a work of art, once created, has a life of its own and if we can look at it as being a separate entity from us, it might make it easier for us to see how to promote it (and rationalize promoting it), even though it’s difficult and sometimes seems more than hopeless. It’s related to the feeling that I have that if I have gone to all the trouble to write the best book I can, it is almost a betrayal (of me, if not of it) not to try to find it some readers. If no one ever reads it because no one knows it exists because I fail to do any promotion, that work (and work has great meaning and value to me) is for naught. I might as well have been rearranging sand. Or vacuuming my curtains.

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