Folks, it has been a weird goddamn week.
Specifically, it has been a week in which my cat – Graeme Riley, Ace of Cats, whom I have written briefly about in the past – became an internet celebrity, courtesy of a story in last Saturday’s Herald Sun about how he likes to come to the local train station to meet us (and anyone who will pet him) in the evenings. We thought it would be 2-3 paragraphs buried on page 10; it turned out to be 90% of page three.
Plus there was a story online with photos and video, and it’s here that things exploded, or indeed ‘went viral’ as the hip young things with minimal understanding of biology say. A series of Facebook likes and retweets pushed the story into the wider world, where it got picked up by outlets in Hong Kong, Brazil, Europe and the United States. From the Huffington Post to I Can Haz Cheezburger, everyone’s been talking about the Station Cat this week, and things aren’t slowing down yet.
So it’s been a crash course in the power of social media and high-turnover news cycles to pick up a story and run with it like it was Usain Bolt. That’s been eye-opening, and something I’m still trying to draw meaning from. Plus, of course, we’re hoping to sell postcards and T-shirts of Rockstar Greame Riley, so check out the store if you want one.
The other interesting thing is how many people have said that I need to take advantage of the cat’s sudden popularity to improve mine in turn. I should write a children’s book about him, or get my name into the articles about him, or at least put links (and recommendations) on his Facebook page. Every one of his 500 (!) new followers could be buying Hotel Flamingo and Godheads, after all.
And that makes me wonder. Is that true? Is all publicity created equal? Is every opportunity worth pouncing upon? Writers have to be self-marketers, but I’m not convinced that that means you should go all Amway on people’s arses and throw a review copy through every window of opportunity.
I think there’s good publicity that helps you and bad publicity that hurts you, but there’s also orthogonal publicity that just sits there staring at you but never touching you, like a bad date or a creepy uncle. It’s about overlap – is this really an opportunity to find new readers, or will I find that people who like reading news stories about cats don’t have a lot of interest in fiction about weirdness and metatext?
I know that might sound elitist, but this isn’t me saying that I don’t want the wrong kind of people soiling my deathless prose with their filthy uncultured gazes. It’s saying that I don’t think it’s a genuine outreach to people who I think might enjoy my work. It’s clutching at straws and being too fake, like those sales reps who say the customer’s name every few seconds while giving their pitch. Readers can tell when a writer sees them as a market to be exploited, rather than someone who might find some kind of meaning in their work. And that’s not helpful to my career, or indeed Graeme’s.
It’s also interesting to tie this back to Mark Coker of Smashword’s blog post today about how buyers and readers discover ebooks. Recommendation from other readers is the primary method, followed by word-of-mouth from people you trust. Stumbling across a title randomly, say in a blog post or a re-re-retweet or an article about a cat, is way down the list.
And, to be honest, I also can’t help but think about the career of Rita Mae Brown. An author with decades of experience behind her, she was at one time best known as the author of the seminal lesbian coming-of-age novel Rubyfruit Jungle. (And at other times for her poetry, or her political activism or for dating Martina Navratilova.) But that was in the Before Time. Now the Amazon-searching masses know her best for the series of cozy mystery novels that she co-writes with her cat Sneaky Pie Brown, which are about a cat that solves crimes. I discovered these when I used to work the genre fiction departments of Borders, and they were sobering because they eclipsed everything she had done before, and perhaps since.
I want to be clear here. I respect Brown and her dedication to her craft. I respect the decisions she’s made about her career. I respect the readers who find that her work resonates with them and brings her joy. But there’s a momentum to those decisions that carries a writer and an audience along, and doesn’t allow much room to turn back or even change direction. When you market yourself one way, you may lose the ability to market yourself another way, and right now, when I still have a long way to go, I want to be very careful about the turns I take on the Road to Mega Writing Stardom.
Also, let’s be honest here, I do not want to co-author books with the help of my cat. Not now. Not ever. Not even if he’s more famous than I am.
Although man, he is cute. I’ll give him that.