Selling – the writer’s bane

Silk’s Post #92 — I’m reading a book about selling. I know, I know. It’s hardly beach reading, and besides I should be writing. Or reading about writing. Or reading a great writer’s writing.

But, no, I’m reading about selling. But it turns out to be a very interesting book by a very good writer who offers a fresh perspective on the topic of selling. Okay, if you’re a writer, you may be rolling your eyes right now. Selling yourself is probably the part of writing that you most dislike, or fear, or look down on, or are just plain confused about. Bear with me, though.

to-sell-is-humanThe book is called To Sell is Human – The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. The author is Daniel Pink, who happens to know a lot about writing and selling, as the author of five non-fiction books. His titles Drive and A Whole New Mind were long-running NY Times bestsellers, his books have been translated into 34 languages and have sold more than a million copies in the US alone. So much for the jacket blurb. The guy knows something about social sciences and modern culture. And his premise is that … wait for it …

We’re All In Sales Now.

He puts a literary shine on this thought by opening with a quote from Arthur Miller’s classic “Death of a Salesman” (1949):

“The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is, you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that.”

Pink begins by acknowledging the distasteful reputation that the iconic character we know as “the salesman” has in most people’s minds. He conducted a survey for his book, in which people were asked “when you think of ‘sales’ or ‘selling’, what’s the first word that comes to mind? Then, taking out the neutral synonyms for ‘sales’, he plotted the adjectives in a word cloud to demonstrate respondents’ predominant feelings about the topic. The biggest word in the cloud was ‘pushy’, followed by yuck, hard, ugh, difficult, sleazy, annoying, necessary, slimy, dishonest, manipulative, cheesy, scary, painful … you get the idea.

So this is what he thinks we’re all turning into? No. Of course not. Who’d buy his book if this was its message?

His message is focused on what he calls “non-sales selling”, which is essentially influencing people, whether that be a prospective employer you want to work for, a colleague whose support you need, a spouse you’re trying to interest in a vacation destination, a citizen you’re convincing to vote for you, a grandchild you want to try a new food … or a reader, an agent, a publisher you want to look at your book. Forget used cars. In the broadest sense possible, “selling” simply means convincing other people to listen to your ideas, engage with your cause, try something new, think differently, support you.

Haven’t we all had to do that on a daily basis? In fact, could we even get anything done, run our lives, or be happy if we didn’t engage in this everyday “non-sales selling”?

So what’s the point? We all need to be aware of, and get better at, these kinds of negotiations – and maybe rethink the whole concept of what “selling” means in our daily personal and professional lives.

Now, you can certainly quibble with Pink’s definitions and terminology. After all, he’s selling a book, so he needs a provocative premise to engage people. But what you can’t quibble with is the fact that, as a writer, you do have to take on the role of “salesman” at times if you wish your work to ever be read.

And that simple fact leads us, inexorably, to what Pink calls the “ocean of rejection” which is the lot of unpublished authors seeking agents and publishers. The dreaded query process, followed by the dreaded rejection letters.

I don’t mean to be harsh here, but this is reality. Getting published is not a quest that involves Fairy Godmothers, unicorns, lucky charms or rainbows. Even if you do it yourself. Sorry.

But it does involve sales. Sorry again. Try to keep your lunch down.

Throughout his book, Pink cites the career, attitude and fortitude of a man named Norman Hall, who is (literally) the Last Fuller Brush Man. A nice guy, by the description in this account. A soft-spoken, dedicated man who has learned how to remain buoyant on that “ocean of rejection” and keep his soul together. And how to keep going. And going. And going.

And from Norman Hall’s story, as irrelevant as it may seem to our publishing ambitions, writers can learn (if they’re willing) the incredibly valuable lesson of persistance and enduring self-esteem in the face of rejection. And some of the strategies that makes a salesmanship a worthwhile skill. Because most of us are going to need it at some point in our careers.

So here’s the punchline. One of the strategies for staying afloat in the “ocean of rejection” and finding the resilience to keep going, and going, and going, is to conquer one’s fear of disappointment. To, in effect, depersonalize rejection and to realize that life goes on and it’s still worth trying again and again and again.

Based on psychological research, Pink recommends that you enure yourself to rejection letters by writing one to yourself. Apparently, this kind of mock assault on the emotions helps writers steel themselves for the real thing. Believe it or not (I had a hard time taking this seriously myself until I checked it out), there is actually a website that will do this for you – that is, send you a rejection letter to your specifications.

The service is on the website, and is called the Rejection Generator Project, designed specifically for writers. Check it out, whether in earnest or for a giggle.

The serious take-away here, though, is simple. As a writer, whether you seek traditional publication, or decide to go indie, you are a salesperson. And successful salespeople need to stay buoyant, confident and focused while navigating an ‘ocean of rejection’.

It’s not an easy thing to accept. We all hope that somehow we’ll be the one wearing the glass slipper. That our True Writing Selves will be discovered almost magically. That the value of what we’re creating will earn us the support, attention and accolades we feel we deserve, without having to stoop to the dirty business of selling.

And you know what? That would make a great story in a book … of fiction.