When I was growing up, my mother often repeated the adage “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” It’s rare that you hear that advice today (we live in very different times), but, for better or worse, I took it to heart and soon uncovered the strange power of silence. Far from preventing people from passing judgment on me, it did the opposite. By remaining quiet in a room full of people talking, and then offering a sharp observation, it increased my presence and influence. Sometimes people listen more carefully when you do finally speak, or they attribute meaning that isn’t there to acts of silence.
Silence—or, in fact, just saying less—is an art that can be strategically practiced by authors trying to garner attention for their work. It is an especially critical strategy when trying to influence people who hear about new books all day, every day—such as editors, agents, booksellers and retailers, mainstream media, and reviewers. Such people, approached constantly by authors who want to talk about their books, feel immense relief when engaging with someone who knows how to give just enough information that allows for a conversation and a natural connection. None of them want a protracted speech that boils down to, “Please pay attention to me and my book.”
Recently I attended an educational session by the publishing industry vet Amy Collins of New Shelves Books on how authors can effectively pitch their work to retail outlets. She asked an author in the audience to stand up and try pitching her published book as if she had met a bookseller at a party. The writer’s response wasn’t bad: it was essentially the meaty hook that would be appropriate in a query letter to an agent or editor. But, for a networking context, or even for a brief sales conversation, it was too detailed.
Collins emphasized that first the author should have stated that her work is a novel and then mentioned a couple of details that help relate the novel to something that the bookseller likely already knows. For example, let’s say an author has written a novel based on historical events about a submarine that sinks off the coast of England during World War II. It appeals to men who love Michener. End there. The bookseller doesn’t need any more to understand the readership and whether it’s the sort of thing for her store. Maybe she’ll say, “Oh, I sell tons of Michener—tell me more about the historical events you’re writing about.” Or maybe she’ll respond, “Oh, my bookstore is focused on women’s fiction, but you should talk to so-and-so librarian who’s looking for that kind of thing.”
What kind of details the author shares with someone is, of course, dependent on context. If speaking with someone who specializes in World War II historical novels, the author may be more specific about the historical events or the name of the submarine in the book. If the author is talking to someone who may not understand the appeal or readership of Michener, a different comparison would be better—something like, “The guys who love to watch the History Channel have been my most devoted readers.”
Part of being a good salesperson for your work is developing a rapport with others and understanding their interests and needs. The conversation can’t be focused on you. You’re not sitting down with Terry Gross and divulging your origin story as a writer, how you were inspired to write the book, the twists and turns the story takes, and the research surprises along the way. Instead, you’re focused on how your product (book) might fill a need for someone else or on looking for points of commonality. You have to put aside any impulse to digress about the content of the book, and instead be curious about and interested in exploring a business connection.
There may not be a match, but it’s okay. There may still be a wonderful relationship to develop, and you won’t become a person to be avoided later on, along the lines of, “Oh, there’s that author who cornered me for 15 minutes and wouldn’t stop talking about his book.”
You’ve probably been at a reading or author event where people in the audience stand up to ask questions, but their questions are really a way for them to talk about their own work. You can feel people shifting in their seats, giving each other sidelong glances. The scenario often ends with the moderator awkwardly interrupting, “Sorry, but what’s the question?”—that is, what do we have in common that we can talk about?
That urge to divulge detail, though, can be irresistible. When you feel that urge, identify it and ask yourself, can I gain more by saying less? What can I ask or share that will spark a connection with this person rather than a desire to escape? As an author, you don’t want to follow my mother’s advice and be entirely silent, but you can allow silence to spark a more useful and engaging conversation.
Jane Friedman is the former publisher of Writer’s Digest; her newest book is The Business of Being a Writer from the University of Chicago Press.