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?