Quality Work Does Not Speak for Itself—It Must Be Marketed

Editor’s note: Last month, I tweeted: “Is it just me, or do many professional authors lack a serious professional attitude toward their websites? In response, Carl Rollyson (@crollyson) tweeted: “I wonder how Amy Lowell would have constructed a website. She was good at showing publishers how to advertise.” So I asked Carl to expand on this idea in a blog post.

I’m writing a biography of Amy Lowell (1874–1925), and I’ve spent the last five years reading her enormous archive in the Houghton Library at Harvard University.  The wealthy Lowell dictated much of her correspondence and kept copies of every letter sent and received. This two-way correspondence is a boon to the biographer, but also, of course, a burden. Although Lowell has been the subject of several biographies, I seriously doubt anyone has read all this material—some of which arrived at the library after her authorized biographer, S. Foster Damon, published his biography in 1935. I expect, finally, to complete my task by the end of this year.

On my last trip to the Houghton, I read over 250 letters that Lowell sent to Edward Marsh, who handled her books at Macmillan. This correspondence constitutes only a fragment of the perhaps thousand letters Lowell wrote during her lifetime to publishers, magazine editors, journalists—anyone who might be instrumental in promoting her books to the public. Now she had a staff to help her, of course. Even so, she did not have access to the kinds of social media and electronic platforms that I’m sure would have thrilled her. She did not believe that the work spoke for itself. An author had to speak up for her work and do so with a savvy understanding of the marketplace. T. S. Eliot scorned her self-promotion, calling Lowell the “demon saleswoman of poetry.” But Lowell saw no reason why quality work of the first order should not be aggressively introduced into the marketplace. As she put it, she was not trying to create readers of poetry, she was appealing to readers who already had a spark of poetry in them that could be ignited.

Imagine how she would have used her author’s website, for example, not only to sell her work but to promulgate Imagism, the movement she wrested away from Ezra Pound, who was stunned to observe H. D., H. D.’s husband, Richard Aldington, John Gould Fletcher, F. S. Flint, and D. H. Lawrence fly to Lowell’s banner. They did so not because she was rich and powerful—although that certainly helped. They did so because Lowell promised them an unstinting campaign to find publishers for their work, reviewers who would recognize its value, and, ultimately, audiences that would follow them when Imagism had served its purpose (a period that amounted to three years).

The poets made money and were sustained during the grim years of World War I largely because of Amy Lowell, who was always as good as her word. She made sure publishers advertised. In her letters, she commented on fonts, on page layouts, and catalogue announcements. She badgered Harriet Monroe, the founding editor of Poetry, to mention the Imagists in her reports on the new poetry. Lowell argued about the quality of the paper used in her books and those of her friends. Everything about the design and presentation of their books became her concern. And when letters did not suffice, she picked up the phone and called editors and publishers. Sometimes she simply showed up, parking herself in their offices until they paid due respect to their author’s wishes. She did not get everything she demanded, but she got more by showing up. And that is what social media is, too: showing up.

My point is that there has never been a period in publishing when authors themselves were not the individuals most invested in getting their work known. And in this age, for someone like Amy Lowell, that would mean contributing considerable time, energy, and money to produce the best author’s website around. You can bet she would not be against social media, labeling it some new imposition on the author, more comfortable with the easier and cozier ways that prevailed in the old days. Lowell would be the first to say that those old days are largely a chimera. She always felt she was struggling to be heard, even though her books sold out and went into second and third editions. She never let up.

I know this kind of proactive engagement is not for every author, and I certainly understand the desire simply to write and not be bothered with social media. Such reluctance to advertise has always been true for certain authors. But for others—like Amy Lowell and like me—imagining and creating an audience for one’s work is what writing is all about.

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Published: August 21, 2012