The Great Social Media Flim-Flam

A few days ago, Publishers Weekly published a photograph with one of its online articles that you will not want your children to see.

For authors of any stripe, (indie or trad) it is as gruesome and horrifying as anything Stephen King could conjure up. The photo shows a pie chart depicting those avenues deemed most likely to spur a reader to buy a book. (Yes, it adds up to 203% and yes, there’s no information on how these pie wedges were calculated, but let’s stick to the horrifyingness of it for a bit.)

Allow me to direct your attention to the “social media” wedge of the pie. While it sits at a puny 11.8%, this effort, for most authors, constitutes a concentration of time and work on par with creating their manuscripts. Are you really living on Facebook and Twitter for a measly 11% return on your (time) investment?

Okay. Let’s say we don’t believe the chart for whatever reasons.  I think it still prompts a very askable question for all writers:

Is social media bullshit?

Even before the offending pie chart landed in my Twitter feed, (I’m not saying social media isn’t great for curating info, the question is whether it sells books) I was in the midst of trying to understand a perplexing situation stemming from the surprise success of one of my titles.

Like a lot of Indies, I have my books published through Amazon and also via Smashwords. I have ten books up, most of them trunk material or “vintage.” I am actively pushing, via social media, two of those titles as my strongest and so, I figure, my best chance of being good sellers. Now I have only been doing this since August but I work from home so I was able to do significant catch-up on the learning curve vis-à-vis social media and blogging. I probably spend a minimum of two hours, often more, every day scrubbing and polishing my author’s platform: tweeting, making friends, posting, and carefully and widely disseminating my blog posts. I am careful not to be pushy but to be helpful, provide good content and be interested in others. I hang out adding to and creating threads on Kindleboards. I’ve read all of Kristen Lamb’s books, and anyone else she recommends as someone I can learn from.

And you know what? Here’s what I’m starting to think:

It’s not about us, as authors.

It’s about the book.

For the last six months, I bought into the whole “it’s a marathon not a sprint” thing and put in my two hours a day to garner my 40 sales a month through Amazon. And then I saw that I was selling 500 books a month on one title over on Smashwords (actually Barnes & Noble and Sony.) It is a title I wrote almost twenty years ago. Before I published it, I had to go back in and add in cell phones, for God’s sake. My protagonist in the ad agency she worked for was talking about “marker comps.”

Then, thanks to Giga Alert, I saw that it got a review on Diesel. The review said it was “the worst book I ever read.” Okay. I know, I know. But I was mortified that someone could say that. I’m here to say it upset me for days. I re-read the book to either reassure myself as to its quality or make the decision to take it down. (This was before I read the sales figures through Smashwords which would tell me that this title—for reasons I do not know—was my single biggest runaway best seller at 3,000 copies sold in four months at $2.99.) So I let the book, Walk Trot Die, stay but the point is, I did not draw attention to it because my confidence had taken a hit on it. Plus, it’s only ever sold ONE copy through Amazon and I live on Kindleboards, and Amazon is the website I link all my book titles to, on blog posts and comments and emails, not Smashwords or Barnesandnoble.com.

So here’s what I was looking at:

Putting in 20 hours a week on social media to sell, on average, eight books a week (on not one title but spread out over ten books.) versus:

Putting in ZERO effort via Barnesandnoble and Sony to sell, on average, 125 copies a week (of  one book with one review and that a bad one).

What do I make of that?

Do I start to believe that selling your book has bollocks to do with social media?

Is it possible that the prevailing belief that having an online platform is essential to a book’s success is wrong? Are we all just the cool kids playing with the latest gadgets and wanting them to be essential and really they’re  irrelevant? Is it really the author’s platform that’s important? Is that why YOU buy a book?

Isn’t it about the damn book?

The a priori stance for my argument (that it’s the book, not the author that matters) is based on the assumption that you begin with a good book, not even a great one. All equations must start from that so don’t let’s even bring in the dreck and the bad writers and the confusing story lines and the chapters that begin with a dream sequence. Let’s just say, for our purposes, that our playing field is a product that is publishable (in the old sense), i.e., a good read.

The next thing you need to do, as an author, is to get some luck and, unfortunately, nobody knows how to make luck happen. You can position yourself so you’re in a good place for luck to hit you, but you can’t make it happen and that’s what we’re all trying to deny. After we worked so hard on the book—and it’s an awesome book—are we really going to just throw the dice on it and go write the next one? Can’t we MAKE something happen with it? Don’t we all want to believe that?

Believing we can make the big numbers happen by building relationships or “liking” a bunch of Facebook pages (or getting people to “like” us) is just thinking we have some control over the process.

I’m not saying an influential blogger never helped a writer’s book. Relationships are helpful. But, dear God, trying to develop these relationships is more exhausting than writing the book in the first place, and unlike creating the book, they are soul-sucking because we’re doing it to push our book, not because we really want to get to know the person. No matter how many times the social media mavens tell us to be nice and non-self serving, the fact is, if it weren’t for your damn book you wouldn’t be trolling through tweets or posting comments on other people’s blogs. I mean, unless you were just some pathetically needy, lonely person, I have to think you wouldn’t be.

For example, ask yourself: is it really even possible to make friends on Twitter?

Twitter is like the River Styx. It is this tsunami of sound bytes that comes roaring at you relentlessly. At first, I held off following people because I figured I wasn’t able to “follow” the fifty or so I already had. How can you connect or make friends if you have 10,000 followers? If I leave my computer to refresh the dog’s water bowl, when I come back, I’m heralded by a notation that “265 tweets” have been sent in the interim. How can anyone process all this? Do you try to go read them all? Because, meanwhile, more tweets are pouring in over the transom. And what is the benefit of it all, anyway? Is it so you can deliver some industry-rich content and get a facile “Good point!” or “LOL!” back? Is that a relationship? Really?

If you’re a writer and you follow a bunch of other writers, you will be fed a steady stream of commentary on how many words they wrote that day or how difficult it is to start writing without yet having their morning coffee. Or they’ll link you to yet-another blog post on the importance of persistence and not giving up. (Do writers not post on any other topic?) Is this helpful to pushing your book? On the less friendly side, you have the other writers who push their books in your face constantly and don’t bother with the chit-chat (takes up precious character space to say “hi.”) Do they really think endlessly hyping their books is going to intrigue me? With all the posts on all the writers’ sites that talk about how estranging that sort of self-serving behavior is, are they not reading those comments? Do they just not care? Are they selling books this way?

How in hell can you make a friend worth having in this environment, I would like to know. Isn’t the true benefit of Twitter to get your book advertised to your 10,000 followers and hope it gets, somehow, re-tweeted to their 10,000 followers? How can it be about “relationships” when the whole reason you’re there—and everybody knows it—is To. Sell. Your. Book. ?

I just read a blog post about an author who had become obsessed about how many “likes” she got on her Facebook page. She had begun to check it hourly because, I guess, she had done some Facebook promotion that had gotten a lot of people to “like” her page. Okay, now, really? Is there anybody out there who believes that total strangers really can “like” you, that it means anything? Does it mean anything when you “like” their page? It’s all a game. A silly game that got started back in high school and for some reason we’re all still playing it.

Like a lot of authors, I would love to jettison the whole social media exercise. It takes up too much time and now I don’t see a direct or even indirect line between it and book sales. I don’t know what I did (did I do something?) to make Walk Trot Die sell. (And why isn’t it selling on Amazon?) I would like to do whatever it is I did better so it would sell even better. But that’s me thinking (wishing) I have control over this beast.

Isn’t it possible that, beyond creating a good book, it’s all out of our control? As Americans, that kind of thinking is practically sacrilegious. We are so into the “How to Lose Weight in Four Simple Steps” that the idea that success can’t be turned into an easy step-by-step formula that only needs faith and persistence is just not acceptable.

It’s not about the author. It’s about the book.

You are not your book. Selling yourself does not sell your book. As a reader, I don’t want to cheer you up by buying your book. I want to get lost in a great story. As a reader, I don’t care about you. I care about the story.

If a reader likes your book, they may be interested in knowing something about you, but why is it we believe the reverse is necessarily true? Just because I find someone interesting on Facebook, doesn’t mean I will plunk down money for her book. Why would I? Curiosity? That’s why Amazon invented Sampling, and believe me, I constantly use it to check and see if an engaging blog personality I like can also cut it as a storyteller. And even if they can, if the subject matter or plot doesn’t interest me, I won’t go further.

Selling yourself as a way of selling your book has to be one of the most asinine attempts at book marketing I’ve ever heard of. And responding to that by saying traditional marketing methods won’t sell books online (whether true or not) is not an answer. However you market the product, if you think YOU are the product and not the book, you are selling the wrong commodity to the wrong demographic audience. And that never ends well.

I respect Konrath and Eisler and Dean Wesley Smith and Mayer and I read their blogs to hear their take on the publishing industry. But I can see straightaway that their books are not for me. They are famous in writerly circles. But I can’t believe that celebrity, in itself, is a great marketing plan for their books or the reason they sell so well.

So what’s the take-away?

If you have a good book and you’re spending a lot of time building your platform, and you’re not selling a lot of books, is it because you’re not spending enough time on social media (Dear God!) or because you’re not delivering the right message in the right social media at the right time of day? Or could it be you’re working to promote the wrong thing?

I think you have to at least ask yourself: what if it’s true? What if it really is about the book? And not about how many times you, the author, get retweeted, reposted or “liked?”

Wouldn’t that be a kick in the head?

What Makes Historical Romance Work?

What happens when you combine a right-brain off-the-charts creative type with an inclination toward OCD? (No, I wishthis were a set-up for a joke.) While my husband and family wouldn’t be surprised, the results of a personality test I recently took (which inescapably established that I was indeed unemployable in any kind of corporate or structured setting) revealed that not only was I an intensely creative type but I had a heavy dose of the analytic compulsive personality. A creative who likes rules? So that’s weird. But I think, after essentially sloughing off the results of the test as if they were as irrelevant to my options for prospective work as a Cuisinart is to a bricklayer, I’ve assembled the Intel in a way that makes sense to me. (Which, by the way, is what the test predicted my type of personality would do.)

It is true I am creative, but I am also curious about the creative process. This is why I don’t just write, but wonder why I wrote what I did. My husband is a philosopher and he introduced me to the whole “an unexamined life is not worth living” idea. (I know that many of you learned about this in college, I live it with this man pretty much daily.) Okay, so my natural inclination combined with the company I keep has me questioning things I might normally just sit back and enjoy. (God forbid.) Because, see, if you want to re-create an amazing experience, first you have to understand it. You have to understand how it happened or how you happened to create it in the first place. My nascent left-brain tendencies don’t really accept the whole “it just wrote itself!” or “who cares why chocolate tastes good? Dig in!”

This is a lengthy introduction to my most recent self-question, which is: why do I like to read historical romances? Again, if you read this genre and do not care why you like them, that’s fine, of course. But if you discover the little nugget of why upon which the whole of your pleasure in the genre turns, then, possibly you will then be in a position to find a way to expand that pleasure by including other tints of the thing you (unconsciously) love or are drawn to in other plot lines within the genre. (If this next bit goes under the heading of “everybody knows that!” please remember that one person’s epiphany is another person’s “well, duh!”)

Okay, so I love historical romances. That’s easy enough to break down: I love history. I love romance. So far, not much to decipher.  When I examine it closer, though, I discover it’s not so much history, in itself, that I love, but the idea of what life was like during that time of history compared to my own life. It’s immensely interesting for me to imagine myself—with all the ups and downs in my typical day—trying to put dinner on the table for my family without the use of microwaves, Whole Foods or an SUV. I love the idea of having much the same goals and dreams: love, family, security, self-improvement only now plopped down in the 14th century. So the history thing I get. As I’ve written before, reading a story that takes place in a time other than the one in which I am living is time travel and I love time travel.

Okay, on to romance. Again, not too complicated. I loved falling in love when I was younger, I love reading about it now. The whole courtship thing is so exciting and, unless you’re Elizabeth Taylor, not something that gets repeated too many times in a lifetime.

The bolt from the blue, for me, on the whole historical romance genre—and an important reason why I love it so much—had to do with the kind of romance that’s typically portrayed. Unless it’s just my myopic worldview, relationships between men and women today tend to be very equal. We both work, we both take care of the children, we both share much of the same problems and concerns of career advancement, ego, worry about the world going to hell, etc. The differences between men and women back then were much more pronounced. The sexes were very different from each other. For one thing, the women were protected, the men did the protecting. If you had a woman behaving like a typical woman from today’s world—strong, resolute, decisive—she was considered (within the genre’s rules) to be headstrong (and therefore, much more worthy of the male lead’s love.)

God knows I’m not saying I long for less equality with men. I’m not saying I approve of the fact that women still make less money than do men for the same job. I’m saying, when it comes to fiction, it is quite pleasant to read stories in a time when the differences between men and women and their happy acceptance of each other’s gender roles actually augmented their attraction to each other.

Or am I over-thinking it?

Living and Loving an Ordinary Life

About 20 years ago, a crisis occurred in a Texas suburb which captured the attention of the country—and then the world. A baby, named Jessica, fell down a well. Rescuers worked for 58 hours to free “Baby Jessica” from the eight-inch-wide well casing 22 feet below the ground..

The fame that came to the people involved in this drama was intense and, like so much in our over-stimulated American culture, fleeting. The young man who did, without thinking, what he thought he should do, was lauded as a “hero,” which, no one doubted that he was. He was told how super-extraordinary he was on talk shows, radio shows, he appeared on Good Morning America, was the focus of best selling books and a made-for-TV movie. When all the excitement died down and the cameras turned else where, when the next “hot” story eclipsed the Jessica story, this young man was faced with going back to living his ordinary life. But for him, there couldn’t be ordinary ever again. How, after you have tasted being a superstar, after you have had Presidents shake your hand, after you have been made to believe that you were so special? How could you go back to pumping gas and living in your hometown after that? He couldn’t. After ten years of trying, he killed himself. His sister said: “After being famous for a bit, he just couldn’t settle back down to living an ordinary life.”

What is this so-called Ordinary life? Do any of us really aspire to have one? Can you blame this poor guy for not being able to go back to life before all the fame and excitement? Remember, he was happy before he got famous. He was content.

A few Christmases ago, my son really wanted the guitar video game called Rock Band. This game allows players—who have never picked up a guitar in their lives—to  perform in virtual “bands” by providing the ability to play three different peripherals modeled after music instruments. These peripherals are used to simulate the playing of rock music by hitting scrolling notes on-screen. Can you imagine? During this period of his life, he didn’t know how to play these instruments, but he did produce music—and really, amazingly good music, with his friends, in the basement using an Xbox and a device that looks like an electric guitar. My husband, who had a real garage band as a teenager, was appalled. Today, my son, after five years of weekly guitar lessons and endless hours of practice, is a very good, real, guitar player. The playworld of being a guitarist instilled the pleasure and kudos of the accomplishment without the actual accomplishment. But the lie was felt. The kudos were undeserved. And that lie, as pleasurable as it was, was still a lie and eventually prompted my son to go for the real thing.

We are surrounded, engulfed by technology. It makes our lives so much better in so many ways, but it’s also helped to undermine our sense of reality because it suggests that life is constant high drama. Ordinary life is more subtle. It’s difficult for a developing chrysalis on the backyard oak tree to compete with the excitement of saving the world from invading aliens or making a Super Bowl touchdown. (The virtual experience derived from the most basic of video games.)

The real world, the natural world, doesn’t typically allow one the likelihood of being twelve years old and playing in a rock band (especially without all the hassle of years of music lessons.) Or to be pumping gas in Texas one day and speaking to Diane Sawyer the next on national TV.

While it’s possible that you or I might be able to handle the five minutes of fame better than poor Kevin Draper did, it’s also possible that this young man is, in himself, a cautionary tale. A tale that suggests that the further we get away from what’s real, the more we layer on the superlatives, the over-the-top praise, and add the extra, unnecessary gloss, the further we get away from who we are in a true, organic sense.

Real life is dull. It’s housework, watering the garden, and staring off into space as you do it. It’s preparing a meal. And most pleasures in real life are small ones…a hot shower, a beautiful sunset, a bowl of soup, a good book. When did we all start looking to win the lottery? Or star in our own TV shows? When did the manic drama of what could be, take the place of what is?

I am sure that we should all strive to be the best we can be and to try to achieve great things. But, in the process of doing all the hard work required to achieve those great things, it might help to remember what perfection there lies in an ordinary life, lived with pleasure and enjoyment of our surroundings and each other.

Just a thought.

7 Counter-Intuitive Ways to Improve Your Creativity

While I’m as big a believer as anyone else in the “just do it” mentality when it comes to getting my daily word count in, I have to admit I’m always on the look-out for an edge in the quality aspect of  “just doing it.” To that end, I’ve discovered a great article (via Behance in case you haven’t discovered them yet—an awesome resource for creative and compulsives alike) and recapped it here!

Enjoy and after you put that barbell down and finish playing with the dog, get back to work!

  1. Eat breakfast. I know, I know. I always suspected Kellogs invented this one but it turns out it’s probably true. At least a quarter of all Americans skip breakfast (me, included.) But studies show increased productivity, lower weight, etc. if we eat breakfast (and not, of course, beignets and Fruit Loops.)
  2. Sit less. Okay, a little tricky when you are writing at a computer, I know but a report on a recent 14-year study showed that there was a 20% increase in the death rate (40% for women) for those people who sat six hours or more every day. So! Motivation to get off your ass? CHECK!
  3. Exercise helps your mental performance and overall productivity. Turns out hitting the gym during the day will help you problem-solve and write better, longer. Who knew?
  4. Get a dog. Well, it doesn’t have to be a dog. Any kind of a pet will do. The reasoning behind this is that having an animal while you work increases trust and team cohesion. On the other hand, if you work alone, and collaboration is not an issue, skip the dog and get back to work.
  5. Kill the commute. If you write in your back bedroom, go ahead and skip to the next item on the list. If you have a job that forces you out of the house and that job is not close by, a new finding has shown that a commute of much duration is a total happiness killer. It significantly decreases your quality of life. My suggestion on this one? Find another house or find another job or just accept you won’t be as happy as you could be.
  6. Use all your vacation days. This was never a problem for me. In fact, I struggle to understand people who don’t take paid days off from work. I’m not making this up. An article from the Harvard Business Review said that “More than half of all Americans now fail to take all of their vacation days.” Okay, since I really can’t understand people who would do this, I can’t speak to it. (OTOH: if you really want to work so damn bad, donate your vacation days to me.)
  7. Get pissed. And I mean that in the American sense, not the British. New studies show that being angry (sad works too) is a key driver to creativity. And if you’ve ever knocked out some of your best work right after you were dumped, fired or lost your best dog, you’ll understand. Anger, it seems, fuels idea generation while sadness, perversely? drives us to work harder.

So there you have it! Seven easy ways to boost your creativity and get the most out of your writing environment. If you’ve tried any of these ways—or have issues with any of them—I would love to hear from you!