Monday, September 2, 2013

A Certain Fashion Sense

I love it when the New York Times comes out with stuff that's really only "news" to, maybe, the five people who've been living in a cave the last few years.  I refer specifically to the article on the J.K. Rowling brouha-ha and the shockingly novel idea that first-time authors face really long odds on making it.  No.  Really?  (I can hear Claude Rains now: "I'm shocked, shocked . . .)

 You know, that's always been true: that the odds are long when it comes to making it as an author.  (Notice I said, making it: i.e., making a living that pays the bills; I do not mean become a bagillionaire.)  Even when a publisher decided/decides to throw a lot of marketing muscle behind a book . . . that's no guarantee of success (I know I'm preaching to the choir here). 

Yet it is also just as true that really good books tank and/or quietly vanish all the time (and, conversely, that books pick up momentum and have a very long tail)--and therein lies a real problem that is, while not new, only more pointed in this era of self-pubbing.

About ten days ago, I happened by Passive Voice's blog to see what was doing and came on an interesting (re)-post of something by Miss Snark's First Victim.  You should read Snark's full post and then stroll through all the comments on both her site and PV--not necessarily because I agree with everything Snark has to say or the folks piling on to comment but because of the starkness and virulence of that schism as it showed itself on PV.

In a nutshell, Snark says that self-pub really isn't her cuppa at this time.  She makes valid points, and I can see where she's coming from.  Do I completely agree?  No.  But . . . you know, there's room for everyone.

What surprised me, though, was the . . . well, anger? irritation? vitriol? . . . directed her way in the PV comments section.  It was interesting because it was so volatile and mean-spirited--most of it along the lines of she's so stupid and good riddance--as if there's only one right answer for everyone (and, in the eyes of those folks, that's to self-pub).  The comments on Snark's site were more even-keeled, although not everyone agreed with her. 

A point that Snark made and which I think is quite valid has to do with marketing: how you grab people's attention.  She had no answer for that; in fact, she pretty much said that it felt overwhelming to her.  The folks yelling at her on PV didn't say much about that aspect of her comments either.

But, for me, marketing is a huge problem, and it's not relegated solely to folks going the self-pub route.  One person on Snark's site hit it on the head (for me, at least): "Self-published can often mean “invisible” in the ocean of other self-published titles, and that ocean grows larger every day."

That certainly strikes a chord in me, and you don't have to be going the self-pub route to feel invisible either.  Right now, I'm on the traditional pub track, with marketing support, and I still feel invisible most of the time.  I'm not dissing the marketing teams at either house; don't get me wrong.  But I've come to discover that a book's got about a month to make a splash (in fact, a marketing person at one of my publishers pretty much said that).  That's all the time the marketing folks have to invest in you because they've got other books to move on to, deal with--and, frankly, other books are "bigger" than yours (and by bigger names) and so get a larger piece of that very small marketing pie and sales force support.  It's just the way it is. 

Well, a month's not a lot of time, and that's with support.  What's puzzling . . . or maybe only daunting to me . . . is what you do and how you make a splash, get noticed above the noise, etc., etc., when you self-pub. 

In a way, you have to start thinking about how books get noticed.  Sure, by reviews and word of mouth . . . but whose reviews and whose word of mouth? 

Think about this for a second.  How do you, personally, decide what to read?  If we accept that all reviews--and I mean, all--are simply private taste made public and legitimized in some way . . . then how do you decide: Okay, I trust him but not her.  I'll read this but not that.

So how did you come to those conclusions?  I'm asking because of what a marketing person said to me a while back: that bloggers are today's trend-setters and taste-makers.  Okay.  I can accept that.  But which bloggers?  And how did they get that way?  Why are certain bloggers anointed as trend-setters/taste-makers and others not?  Really, someone tell me because I don't know.  Is it just because everyone happens to agree?  How is it that some bloggers--and who are they, by the way--are seen as better/more trustworthy?

I'm thinking about this the way I think about cover blurbs.  You know, it's the name recognition.  It's why the cover blurb became important, and a simple enough idea: get a well-known, respected  (read that as popular, strong seller) author in a similar genre to say, Hey, this book is worth your time. 

Now, has anyone ever bought a book on the basis of a cover blurb?  Anyone?

Yes. I have.  I really have.  Now I will also say that I've decided that some authors, whose books I really like, have crummy taste when it comes to other books because I did not love the book(s) they did.  While that doesn't stop me from reading their books, it might make me think twice about reading a book they recommend.  But I can still say that, yeah, if author X tells me to try author Y, I might go for it.

I read reviews, too, but I cherry-pick out of the same sensibility/mentality that I said before: reviews are only private taste made public.  I can say with almost 100% certainty that just about anything the New York Times gushes over, I normally won't like.  (I can think of one or two instances where that wasn't true.  Of course, if they raved about my books, well . . .)  But I'll look at PW, Booklist, MWA, VOYA, that kind of thing.

What I haven't done yet, though, is check out a book on the basis of a blog.  I just haven't.  I will check out books on the basis of a friend mentioning, you know, you might check out X,Y, Z . . . but not blogs.

Which is . . . interesting?  A problem?  I don't know what it is.  But if the marketing person's right and (some) bloggers are taste-makers and have a certain fashion sense . . . well, who decides which ones those are?  And how?  What makes one blogger more powerful than another?

Really, think about this because it has huge implications for all authors: what makes you listen to one person's opinion--someone you've never met and don't know--over another's and then decide that it's better? 

For that matter, think about the last book you read: what made you read it?  A blogger?  Name recognition? (And, if so, was that because you'd read that person before?)  A friend said, Hey, read this; you'll love it?  A Twitter pal?  A bookseller you trust put it in your hand?  Amazon's algorithm helped you decide? 


(And, oh, how does this relate to Snark and PV and those angry, nasty comments?  Because, as a shrink, I've learned to pay attention to when people start yelling.  When people yell or get nasty . . . you've hit a sore spot.  I'm not trying to psychoanalyze any of those folks . . . but not everything Snark said was wrong and/or naïve or misinformed.  In fact, she said that marketing is something authors have to learn about, regardless.  But she's happy where she is, in traditional publishing.  A ton of people were mad at her for being happy and/or deciding that their way wasn't her way.  Think about that.  Why does it have to be one way or the other?)

* * *
Okay, time out for a self-serving note: MONSTERS, the last volume in the ASHES trilogy, hits shelves on September 10.  As you can see on this site, there's a Goodreads giveaway going on you should check out.  But for the next coupla days, you've got a shot at a hardcover, too, so head on over to my part of the AUTHORS ARE ROCK STARS blog tour on for your chance to win that sucker.  (And thank Jordan Dane, too, for turning them on to me.)



Jordan Dane said...

Very cool you got on the Authors Are Rockstars Tour. It's a great event.

The topic of indie pubbing brings out touchy feelings on both sides. I love writing as a passion of mine, but it's also a business. People need to keep their minds open to anything new on the horizon. It may not make sense now, but that could change in the future.

Cue the "It's a Small World Afterall" music.

Ilsa said...

I agree, and I think that people need to keep an open mind about the traditional route, too. I think I get a little tired of people acting as if publishers are the Antichrist. There's something to be said for both ways of doing business.

Sechin Tower said...

Absolutely great post. Great analysis of the state of the industry.

It seems to me it's always been a catch 22, but the exact catch has changed. It was "You need to be published before you can be published." Now it's: "You need to be known before you can be known."

Some days I'm optimistic. Some days I think writing will never amount to more than a fun hobby. The only thing I'm sure of is that you need a crystal ball to know where the publishing industry is going.