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My Life, the Ad


By Wil McCarthy


(Originally published in Speculations magazine)


      Everything I do is an advertisement for everything else I do.  This article is an advertisement for my other work: my novels and my nonfiction, my monthly column for the SciFi channel.  I also write for WIRED, and a handful of other magazines.  Check out my website at, or punch my name into your favorite search engine or online bookstore.  Why?  Because it'll teach you something that took me twelve hard years to learn.  Go on, look me up.  See my reviews, see that I'm for real.  Buy a New York Times Notable book.


      Am I emptily plugging my work?  No, I'm making a point about the nature of publicity.  Publicity isn't something that falls out of the sky or appears on the shelves of your local department store.  It isn't even something you can buy, although many have tried.  Quite simply, publicity is you.  It's the extent to which you are interesting or newsworthy.  It's the market penetration of the brand name you're striving to become.


      Have I got your attention?  Good: that's the whole point.


      Almost every week, I'll receive  promotional items from other writers, or from publishers, or from small presses or web sites or whatever.  The most pathetic of these are the email Spams, but really a 4-color glossy postcard is the same thing: yet another attempt to gain my attention, without offering anything in return.  Admittedly, sometimes I'll respond to these.  Sometimes I really like the art, or a review excerpt catches my eye, or else I'll simply recognize the name and feel a tug of curiosity.  But the vast majority of these things go in the trash without another thought.


      Am I a jerk?  Well, maybe.  My friends and family don't think so, but they're biased.  Mostly I'm just very busy, and don't have the time to process other people's advertising.  This is hardly a unique opinion in America, where most of us have seen a million commercials before we're old enough to drink.  We develop a kind of immune system, a thick and slippery skin which repels any attempt to make us do or think anything.  Unless, of course, we've initiated the contact ourselves.


      Which brings us back to the question: why am I telling you this?  Because, amigos, I've engaged in this sort of crude publicity myself.  Postcards, bookmarks, temporary tattoos, you name it.  Do they work?  Well, kind of.  Better than nothing, if nothing is your only other alternative, which is often the case since publishers do little (or nothing) for the books they haven't already pegged as bestsellers.  But it takes a lot of time, and costs a lot of money, and as I said, doesn't offer the audience any real incentive to pay attention.


      But you're getting something out of this article, or you wouldn't still be reading it.  And do you know how much this cost me?  Less than zero, because of course I get paid for my writing, while you've shelled out good money (or at least good time) to read it.  And it's a fair transaction, because you're getting the benefit of my hard-earned experience, and I'm getting a chance to raise my profile, and leave an impression in your collective memory.  That's "Wil" with one "l", not two.


      When did my life become an advertisement for itself?  Ah, now here's the kicker: it always was.  It always will be.  It just took a long time for me to figure that out.  To some extent it's obvious, or possibly even tautological; the better known you are, the better your work will sell, because (a) people will be more aware of it, and (b) they'll have some a priori idea about its style and content, and whether that appeals to them.  Your bibliography is an advertisement for your future work.  The same is true in business, where workers advertise themselves with 1-page summaries of their previous jobs.


      What's less obvious is the value of diversity.  A great deal of what I write is science fiction, and yet if the only publicity I generate is through my backlist, then I'm only advertising to people who already read or know about the sort of science fiction books I've previously written.  But here's where the light began to dawn: my publishers have always made a big fuss about my being an aerospace engineer, or "rocket scientist" in the parlance of marketing types.  Why?  Because this is a kind of advertisement.  It says something about me, about my personality and character, and about where I'm coming from as a writer.  Those two little words, "rocket scientist," say more than two whole paragraphs about plot and character and setting.


      And as it turns out, that door swings both ways.  My last two engineering jobs were won, at least in part, because I was a science fiction writer.  If my education and experience stack up, this credential highlights my imagination and communication skills -- both of which are important in engineering -- and also implies some level of general intelligence, ambition, and ability to complete a project.  It's also a status symbol which my employers figured they could capitalize on, in the same way that they like to keep a few PhD scientists around.  It's an advertisement, in effect, of their own institutional vitality.


      Now a counterexample, again drawn from the pages of my career: my brief and unspectacular foray into the field of mystery writing.  Much of the SF I've written has a distinct mystery or crime-drama bent to it, and one novel ( MURDER IN THE SOLID STATE, Tor/St. Martins, July '96, ISBN 0-812-55392-6) was explicitly a political/technological thriller set in very-near-future Philadelphia and Washington D.C..  This book could conceivably have been published as a mainstream novel with one of those spiffy black and gold and red covers, but instead it was packaged and sold as "hard science fiction," a bit of spin-doctoring which obscured the book's actual content, and probably cut deeply into its potential readership.  It did hit a couple of bestseller lists and is still in print and available these six years later, so it was hardly an unmitigated disaster, but I did definitely feel that the book had been hijacked.


      Disillusioned, I set out a few years later to write a straight mystery novel, set in present-day Denver, Colorado.  I had to do it on spec, because mystery/thriller publishers were unimpressed, or perhaps even disimpressed, with my science fiction credentials.  And when I was finished, I had a terrible time selling it, for two reasons.  First, although the story was contemporary it had a strong technological component, and relied on a gimmick -- a 1960's fertility drug whose dangerous side effects included high incidence of idential twins and triplets.  In the story, the drug was never approved for human use, and was consequently discontinued and forgotten.  This is a perfectly plausible scenario -- things like it happen all the time -- but to the jaded and rather specialized mystery publishers it sounded a lot like science fiction.  Escaping your roots can be harder than you think.


      Second, and more importantly, I was already known in the science fiction world.  Mystery had never heard of me, and did not see anything especially interesting about me.  I wasn't a lawyer or a cop or the mayor of a city, I'd never been arrested or held hostage...  My background did nothing to advertise my mystery-writing insight or ability.  In fact, my background shed actual doubts about these.  My publicity photo says it all: short hair, aviator shades, and a jacket covered in mission patches from the various rockets I've sent into space.  In the background is a hulking Titan Stage I Motor Assembly, a rocket engine capable of generating half a million pounds of thrust.  What does that guy know about the seedy world of crime and corruption?


      The idea behind the novel was pretty spiffy -- at one point, a movie producer was talking about maybe paying $1 million for it -- but in the end, the only publishers I could find were science fiction publishers, who insisted (again) on emphasizing its high-tech features and soft-peddling its real-world setting.  This would not have been a good career move for me, because it would have alienated a good chunk of my SF audience, without drawing in a single new reader from the mystery genre.  In today's performance-driven marketplace, that's death.  So I packed up my million-dollar idea and the year of work I'd invested in it, and stuffed them in a steamer trunk, where they remain to this day.


      The words of a bygone editor came back to me in force: "If you want to write a mystery novel, can't you set it on the moon?"  Because that would advertise itself, yeah.  Because the guy in that photo knows all about the shifty, jealous world of the space program -- the bribery, the corner-cutting, the constant struggle to be first or fastest or highest...  No artist likes being typecast, but the reasons for it go beyond the greed and laziness of corporations, and right to the heart of human nature.  You only get to be one thing in the minds of the public, and unless you're lucky enough to be "The Amazing Swiss-Army Renaissance Man," you're either typecast or you're nobody.  Sad, but there you have it.


      My one thing was "Rocket Science Writer," and this had (and still has) everything to do with the popularity of my fiction.  Only after the mystery debacle did I finally come to terms with this, and decide how best to exploit it.  In retrospect, the solution seems obvious: science fiction readers often enjoy science for its own sake, and conversely there is a huge "science fandom" out there, millions strong, which voraciously reads nonfiction and can, on occasion, be persuaded to pick up an interesting novel.  The overlap between these two audiences is not nearly as important as the resonance, which draws new readers from one side to the other.  So I started dabbling in science-oriented nonfiction.


      The results have been astounding.  Today, five years after my first nonfiction article, science journalism is a bigger share of my income than science fiction is.  Not dry vanilla journalism, like you see in Science News, but the wonky, gonzo sort where the writer has his facts straight and explains them clearly, but also isn't afraid to extrapolate and expound on their future implications.  After two decades of writing science fiction, I can spin this stuff out effortlessly, turning an easy buck and also advertising, with every article, my linguistic and speculative talents.  Similarly, my status as an acclaimed SF novelist is a draw for the sort of publications where this sort of journalism is practiced.


      Everything advertises everything else.  One hand washes the other.  Even my engineering career has befitted: increasingly, work is finding me rather than the other way around, and I'm free to pick and choose among the interesting projects.  This is particularly true of my latest endeavor, an invention called "programmable matter" which manipulates the electrons of a material like silicon so that it can mimic other materials, including metals, ceramics, magnets, and solar collectors.  This deceptively simple idea has spawned a science fiction series, a bouquet of articles culminiating in a nonfiction book (HACKING MATTER, due March 2003 from Basic Books), and a pending U.S. patent which the Air Force has already approached me about licensing.  Now that's what I call advertising.


      The astute reader will note that this article, having nothing whatsoever to do with rocket science or programmable matter, does not fit the pattern.  This article cannot actually serve as an effective advertisement.  This is true, up to a point; my "how to" stuff is mainly a forward-paying public service, aimed at helping the next generation of writers avoid my own mistakes and ignorances.  But some fraction of the people reading this will not only learn a useful datum or two, but will also be intrigued by the product known as Wil McCarthy.  And that's the point: free publicity, or better yet, publicity that turns an immediate profit.


      We've all got something to sell, some unique perspective on the world which others will pay us for, if they know we exist.  My advice to all of you, and to you personally, is to figure out what product your life is advertising, and to push that product hard, and to keep in mind that when you do this, the product is also advertising you.