Humor in Writing and Book Promotion

We all know the difference between the funny where they laugh with you and the funny where they laugh at you, but sometimes we don't figure it out until the laughter dies down. I try to use humor in my writing because I like to laugh myself, but also to soften the blow when I'm saying things I know my readers might not want to hear. I even try to use humor in writing this blog, to temper my hectoring people about some of the publishing How-to questions they send me.

The problem with writing and publishing humor books is that they tend to violate the neat little subject boundaries book retailers employ. A couple friends of mine wrote a great book about bad resumes, titled "Resumes From Hell." So, is it a humor book, a resume book, or a career guidance book? Some retailers might even want to drop it in the computer section since most of the resumes reviewed were from the IT industry. I spent a couple hours on the phone the other day with a publisher who'd been very successful with direct sales of a humorous self-help book about dealing with people in the professions, but bookstores kept shelving it in the reference section, where it languished.

There's also the issue that humor and money don't necessarily live so well together. Humor can be very disarming, and for that reason, most people have learned to be a little careful about pulling out their credit card while laughing. You don't see a lot of high powered sales people dressed in clown suits or doing stand-up in front of serious prospects. Selling is always a business, even when it comes to humor books.

I haven't seen a lot of publishers trying to use humor in book promotion. Maybe books are inherently serious, at least in comparison with some of the more fleeting entertainments and information sources surrounding us. The Dummies and Idiots series are an example of humor being employed for branding books, and some of the smartest people I know were avid Dummies fans when those books came out because they enjoyed the titles so much. Appealing to potential customers’ self-deprecating side is a pretty subtle promotion technique, and I suspect it may be exhausted for this particular go-around.

Humor can be extremely effective for Internet book promotion because everybody loves to pass on a good joke. I'm not talking about the fifth-generation e-mail full of >>>> that your 3rd cousin twice removed sends you three times a week. I'm talking about a good site gag [sic]. If you've written a nonfiction book about how to do something, a web page displaying in graphic detail how NOT to do that thing may end up being the most popular page on your site! Aside from the promotional value of the page itself, people like linking to humor pages, and will usually do so with a straight face. In other words, the links to your page about baking a cake that ends with the dog cowering in the corner and the kitchen in flames will be linked as "How to bake a cake", not "Here's a page about some idiot...", which means it will help your whole site in the search engines.

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