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The (Canada Reads) life of Brian: Getting on the radar

Brian Francis is the Canada Reads 2011 resident blogger. His thoughts on Canada Reads will appear every Wednesday until the Canada Reads debates.

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Say hello to Brian Francis, the Canada Reads 2011 resident blogger!

A recent post on the Canada Reads site likened the new book selection process to "the hunger games." Another commenter wanted to know: will this year's competition come down to the essential books of the decade or will it ultimately come down to the writers who promote themselves the most?

This quest for the Top 40 essential Canadian books has its pros and cons.

On the con side, I'm left wondering: what about the lesser-known books? The Top 40 list will probably have more than its fair share of heavy hitters and bestsellers from the past decade. But what about the books that might have flown under the radar of the public at large? If my book hadn't been selected by Jen Sookfong Lee for Canada Reads 2009, would Fruit have stood a chance of cracking this year's Top 40 list?

On the pro side of things, this Top 40 challenge could have given me an opportunity and reason to campaign for my book. I could've drummed up a little publicity, started up a campaign among friends. I could've, like some writers are doing, organized Facebook pages, created video posts and sent out tweets to encourage votes and to get my name — and my book — out there.

I could've done these things. Not would've.

A friend of mine is constantly promoting his band through Twitter, the band's website and newsletter, various blog posts, e-mails and more. I think nothing of this. It's a necessity in the music business. Musicians need to promote themselves almost as much as they perform.

"You should be on Twitter," he'll say to me. "You need a website. Keep people in the loop."

I'll nod and agree. I should be tweeting. I should have a website. I should be promoting myself more. Problem is, it makes me feel icky.

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To tweet or not to tweet, that is every author's question.

"Icky."

I know that's not the most profound word to come from a writer, but it's the truest one. It's not that I'm not proud of my writing. It's not that I don't want to be successful or want people to enjoy my books or come to readings. I want to promote Brian Francis.

I just don't want to be the one doing it.

The book world is a weird one. (I'm sure the worlds of film and music have their own weirdness, too, but I stand firm when I say the book world is weirder.) I think it comes down to the peculiarities of reading itself. Reading isn't a collective experience, like a music concert or a movie. It's personal. One-on-one. The reader and the writer. Or, in the best books, the reader and the characters. Reading is an investment of your time. It engages you. Gets you thinking. Reading doesn't wash over you so much as get under your skin.

For those reasons, readers tend to be particular about the books they buy. They usually know what they like and, more important, what they don't like. Sometimes, those opinions are based on fact. And sometimes, they're based on assumption.

In any case, publicity and marketing teams do the best they can to drum up reviews and media interest for their titles. But it's tough. Unless the author is well known or if the book is an award winner or has a topical subject, it can be difficult to frame a discussion around it. The best that anyone can hope for in this crowded publishing landscape is to get a book on a reader's radar. Whether that reader goes out and buys the book is a whole other obstacle.

Publishers appreciate it when an author comes to the table with a willingness to get out there and promote his or her book. But readers can be mistrustful when it's the writer doing the promoting.

"If this book is so good," they seem to say, "then why am I hearing about it from you?"

For better or worse, self-promotion in the book world is often frowned upon. It can be perceived as undignified. After all, shouldn't a book — and its merits — speak for itself?

But how can those books speak if no one is listening?

Case in point: After the Canada Reads 2009 selections were announced, Fruit sold almost six times as many copies in one month than it had in five years.

But I got lucky.

Success is what's on the line for some of these self-promoting authors. More book sales. New readers. A chance to get on the radar.

Can you blame them for giving it their best shot?


Brian FrancisBrian Francis's debut novel, Fruit, was the runner-up in the Canada Reads 2009 debates. His second novel, The Natural Order, will be published next year.

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