Would Updike have a MySpace?

After spending two-plus decades creating strategic visions for companies like Citibank and AT&T - I thought my brand-shaping days were behind me after I sold my first novel. But, soon after I decided to leave advertising, my publisher sent me an author questionnaire that presented me with an ironic challenge: how to position the brand of me.

After spending two-plus decades creating strategic visions for companies like Citibank and AT&T – I thought my brand-shaping days were behind me after I sold my first novel. But, soon after I decided to leave advertising, my publisher sent me an author questionnaire that presented me with an ironic challenge: how to position the brand of me.

Now, to readers of this magazine, this may not sound terribly outrageous. I mean, who hasn’t subconsciously and more likely consciously tinkered with their own version of brand me. What you wear, how and when you choose to express yourself in meetings and the type of work you create are all expressions of brand you. In marketing, image cultivation and self-promotion come with the territory.

But in the book world, especially literary fiction, any type of promotion, let alone self-promotion, is a radical and potentially dangerous proposition. Yet…some have done it brilliantly. Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde pulled it off. Even Canadian Stephen Leacock toured aggressively to promote his books and causes. But overall, selling one’s art is frowned upon, if not detested. In fact, at this year’s BookExpo America in Washington, D.C. literary icon John Updike used his keynote platform not to promote his novel Terrorist, because that would be ‘immodest,’ but to reminisce about the bookstores of his youth.

Immodest? Easy for a 74-year-old, prize-winning legend who’s taught in universities to say. Brand Updike (a phrase that would no doubt gall him) is all set, his backlist poised to sell forever. But what if he were, say, a 45-year-old who finally realized his dream of publication after decades of trying, a man whose biggest literary award was for a telecom commercial? What if he didn’t know if he’d ever have another chance at making it? Would Updike have a MySpace page? Would he have his friends shoot a commercial for him on the cheap?

So I did a brief for brand me and my novel The Futurist. The mission statement for brand me was to be taken seriously as a writer of satirical literary fiction, to sell a gazillion copies and to get on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart without alienating, say, the readers of The New York Review of Books. That’s all. Next I homed in on the early adapters and big-mouths of the literary reading world, with an ancillary emphasis on the advertising community.

We did the latter because first novelists without a James Frey-like past don’t make for the most compelling media stories. So, despite desperately wanting to strut my writerly creds, it was obvious that – more irony – the ex-ad guy wrote a novel angle would eventually get me the most attention beyond reviews. I guess I can always smoke a pipe and wear a tweed jacket for book two.

Next I made sure that my brand had a creation story: the voice for The Futurist was ultimately fueled by the experiences I had in advertising, the profession which, ironically, I had accused for years of sapping me of my creative soul. People seemed to like this, and the best part is that it’s actually true.

We got the word out to pop culture and literary blogs, the business press. My friends did do that video for me, and more friends helped me build a website. My nieces and nephews did a MySpace page for my protagonist Yates, which has become something of a performance art/bizarre marketing hit.

The hardest part has been trying, sans real media budget, to get people to actually see the above. So far, the best way has been to get good reviews, and to revert to getting out and meeting booksellers face to face, signing copies and doing readings. Whether or not any of this has worked remains to be seen but I’d like to think the effort would have made Twain and Wilde and Leacock proud. By the way, I really liked the Updike book, and said as much in my blog.

James P. Othmer’s first novel The Futurist was recently published by Doubleday Canada. Before leaving advertising to write (and promote) fiction full-time, he was an ECD at Y&R New York. He can be reached at jamespothmer.com.