Blessed are the Non-Marketers

Will Sarvis
5 min readJul 3, 2023

I’m one of those writers who is a creative person, not a business person. I continue to be astonished at the rare individuals who are both creative and possess business savvy, like Mick Jagger. By contrast, I am in the camp of people who are creatively successful but commercially nonexistent.

I was always amused when literary agents asked me marketing questions about my novels such as, “Who is your audience?” Well, how the hell could I know that? Or something like, “What other novels would be competing with yours?” If I really knew the answer to that (and other basic marketing questions I’ve forgotten), I would probably have an MBA and would not be a writer in the first place. In fact, maybe I would be a literary agent, ha ha. But the marketing work publishers used to do in the 1950s they sloughed off on literary agents in the 1970s, and with the advent of social media, literary agents have now sloughed off these tasks on writers themselves. There is an obvious absurdity here, but let’s keep that to ourselves.

Advertising is a subset of marketing. Many have criticized advertising for its manipulative qualities; perhaps most notably, the famous economist John Kenneth Galbraith. All my life I more or less ignored advertising, so initially I was pleased to learn about Galbraith’s stance. I do not like manipulation coming or going. Having said that, I try to keep an open mind. Business ethics scholars such as Manuel Velasquez point out the potential informational benefits of advertising. And I was quite fascinated by Doug Pray’s 2009 documentary film, Art & Copy, which revealed how advertising can be its own form of creativity . . . at least in the right hands. But how can a non-schmoozing writer ever hope to interact with such a world, even regardless of its enormous expense?

Instead, what little “marketing” I have done has entailed buying dozens or hundreds of discounted copies of my self-published books and giving them away (slightly defaced to discourage resellers) to Little Free Libraries. I love the LFLs in general, and have found many treasures there for my own reading. But LFLs are likely very ineffectual as a marketing technique. In my case, years of evidence indicate little or no effect on sales.

Thousands of LFLs exist all over the world. The Little Free Library organization provides maps of LFLs near you and elsewhere, guidance for how to start one of your own LFL, and much more. (author’s photo, 2023).

For a couple of years I had a heroic literary agent (Priya Doraswamy) who tried to sell a nonfiction manuscript of mine. Hilariously, after decades of writing, I found myself facing the “public side” of writing for the very first time. Honestly, before that, I had never really considered it. I had just concentrated on writing. And suddenly I was very uneasy about the public side, to the point of losing sleep over it. Yet I also felt myself pulled into the endeavor through an unprecedented factor: my responsibility to Priya and others who were extending and expending themselves upon my work’s behalf.

So I did my part. In response to one book editor’s request, I humiliated myself in seeking what turned out to be strangely inappropriate scholars who could have offered (but declined) to write flap jacket praise for the potential book. They offered no reasons, and the most gauche individual displayed his bizarre sense of “heartland manners” by sending me his rejection on Thanksgiving day. Also, I endured a galling interaction with a wealthy periodical editor (of the Marie Antoinette Redux variety) living in a wonderful and wonderfully expensive coastal city, romanticizing certain topics that I criticized in my manuscript from a perspective apparently far too proletarian and commonsensical to interest the elite. Finally, I made a partial ass of myself by publishing a hastily abbreviated (and thus accidentally bastardized) op-ed extract from the book in my local newspaper, after gathering the usual rejections from all the larger national newspapers. Larger national newspapers do not publish unknowns, and by not getting published there, we remain unknown. And they all lived happily ever after.

Oh well. We never sold the book, despite Priya’s herculean efforts during two years of increasingly diminishing prospects.

If I were to daydream about marketing “success,” I guess I would envision it as meeting the right partner or partners who thrive on the business side of writing. But who would that business partner be? A publicist of some sort? A brander? Another literary agent? I no longer seek the latter because, these days, they all seem to require an established track record of self-promotion through social media. I appreciate that the old taboo against self-promotion is obsolete. But I was one of those odd fish who wisely ran the other direction when Facebook first came upon the scene, and all these years later, everything I’ve read about Facebook merely confirmed my initial repulsion. This would be things like the selling of users’ metadata, manipulative use of algorithms, and the facilitation of misinformation. By the way, many of these business practices have long been illegal in Europe, and for good reason. As for Twitter, well, it never interested me for different reasons, mainly because it seemed so superficial. I have never sent a Tweet in my life and likely never will. Well, that is marketing anathema in the hyper-capitalistic American book selling world.

As I advance deeper into old age, I theorize that I actually might feel happily relieved to run out of books to write one day. Maybe it would be fun to do other things. If that day arrives, or even partly arrives, who knows; maybe I will try to interact more with the business world regarding past creations. In the meantime, a novel or short story collection on fire in my mind readily consumes all of my energy and attention, and I easily surrender to that wonderful distraction from the outside world that, at least for some of us, lies at the core of creativity. And in this light, if creativity is not its own reward at some very profound level, then all the marketing in the world is not going to compensate for that.

P.S., hope you got a laugh out of this essay’s title.

Copyright © 2023 Will Sarvis. All rights reserved.

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Will Sarvis

Author of Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism and other books.