Last week, I took my cue from Kris Rusch’s business blog on discoverability to talk about the task of getting the word out about your book, especially in an era when traditional publishers may be doing less and relying much more on you, the writer, to market yourself. (That imperative is, by the way, why most of us writers have blogs and do social media.) Certainly, marketing yourself is nothing new. Talk to any writer who’s been around a while or her agent, and one of the things publishing houses used to want to know was whether you’d go on tour—and, by extension, if you were the kind of writer a publisher could send out there. Not all writers could/can. Some folks are excruciatingly shy; others are boors; some pick the worst times to get drunk; a couple may be hygienically challenged . . . you get the picture. But the idea was that giving folks a chance to connect with a writer—especially those all-important booksellers—would really help readers discover a book.
That personal connection was important, and still is because what we’re really talking about is word of mouth. In the olden days—like a couple years ago when Borders and Waldens and indies were going strong—that word of mouth was frequently a real live person at a real live story pressing a real book into a customer’s hands. Booksellers got to know their clientele. Conversely, writers formed relationships with booksellers and, if they were very savvy, with their readers that they then maintained. Nowadays, people have blogs, right? Well, way back then, many writers sent out newsletters. Some still do in lieu of or addition to blogs; I know of at least a few because I’ve received them. (Why? Simple: I wrote these writers fan letters a while back, and they responded with newsletters. I’ve been on their mailing lists ever since. Now…have I read the newsletters? No. Why? I wasn’t interested. I know: terrible but true. I didn’t care about pictures of a writer’s dogs or where an author went on vacation. In fact, I rarely pay attention to personal stuff like that, but I don’t think I’m typical that way. Many readers do care about that kind of thing, and I certainly understand it. It’s the same kind of curiosity that I might have about, oh, an actor I like.)
These days, of course, those kinds of very personal connections—where someone presses a book into your hands—are much rarer. In the case of teens, especially, I’m thinking that librarians are the folks who have always fit that job description. They’re the people who know what’s out there and they know their kids; there is, in fact, no greater gift a librarian can give than to hand a kid a book (and this is something I’ve written about, too). Having hung around a bunch of librarians, I’ve discovered that word of mouth is what it’s all about. Librarians bring in speakers; they do book talks; they point teachers to new books; they place books on display that they think are worthwhile. Come right down to it, libraries are the bookstores of tomorrow, and probably one of the few venues where kids will actually continue to be able to come into contact with physical books.
So word of mouth is key, and I was reminded of this just the other day. I was at some party, and we were talking about books we’d read recently. A couple titles came up, and more often than not, the response from folks who hadn’t read a particular work was something like, oh yeah, I’ve heard good things about that. Press just a tad more, and you come to find that, say, a friend mentioned a book, or a friend of a friend, a librarian, a work colleague. Not one person mentioned that she’d seen an ad or book trailer; that he’d read a blog or seen a post on Facebook or gotten into a Twitter conversation. One or two said they’d read a review (none of these were blog reviews). The overwhelming majority of responses revolved around word of mouth—and only rarely was this online word of mouth.
On the other hand, I wonder if this isn’t a problem with the target demographic. Remember, it was a party of adults not teens, and I know for a fact that, other than I, none of these other adults uses social media at all.
So it’s more than likely that teens, who have the fastest thumbs in the known universe, might have a different answer about how they get or transmit their information—pass on a recommendation via word of mouth—online. In fact, a very recent Harris Poll suggests that many people do use social media with the express purpose of influencing others. I know I do; I regularly put up tweets and Facebook about environmental causes because I want to bring these things to people’s attention. Hang around Facebook or Twitter long enough, and you realize that trying to get people to come around to your point of view is frequently what a lot of posters are after.
A cursory search—and I do mean, bare-bones fast and dirty reading of a couple abstracts—regarding the importance of online word of mouth gives contradictory data. One study suggests it has zilch impact (which I find very hard to believe) while another, looking specifically at sales and the impact of reviews on sites such as Amazon.com, concludes that the more reviews there are, the better and that negative reviews have a far greater impact on sales than overwhelmingly positive reviews. I had to step back from that one for a second, too, and think about it, especially that bit about the impact of negative reviews . . . and you know, I think that’s right. I know that if I see an even split in reviews, I tend to go to the three- and two-stars. Now maybe that’s because I’m a Freudian and the glass is always half-full . . . but I don’t believe that any book is flawless, mine included. So I pay attention to the less-than-rapturous reviews.
That actually reminded me of a ploy one author, who shall remain nameless, tried a couple years back. Through Goodreads, the writer offered the full text of a new ebook to anyone who wanted it prior to its date of sale with the proviso that you, the reader, would agree to leave a review (good or bad) on Amazon. I admit; I was intrigued, so I asked for a copy. Well, I hated the book. I hated the book so much I couldn’t, in all conscience, leave that kind of review because, being an author, I just couldn’t do that to another writer. So I wrote to the author, explained my reasoning, and that was that.
On the other hand, I now understand that author’s strategy. Is it a good one? Well, that writer sure thinks so, and Amazon sales of that author’s titles would certainly support that.
If the goal, then, is to generate word of mouth, how can I, Mere Mortal Writer, help that along? Sure, trade reviews can be gold (or killers, if no one likes the book). But it seems to me that, taking into account that writer’s Amazon ploy, we’re after volume here. We want to do things that will increase visibility. Now, for some writers, that may mean offering the book up for a read and review. I’ve seen writers offer the first x-number of pages or chapters for free while others might give away the first book in a series. (In 2008, Neil Gaiman tried a variation of that ploy with American Gods by getting his publisher to give away the ebook for a month—and, yeah, the book still did well once the giveaway was over and people had to pay again.)
But we still come around to the same problem: as any decent businessman will tell you, consumers rely on the opinions of people they trust. In the olden days, this meant they trusted friends . . . i.e., real live flesh-and-blood people they actually knew. But these days--with all these different platforms and social media available--what constitutes a friend? What are the parameters of trust? Think about it. The trust I have in friends--people I actually see and know--is very different than the trust I might have in people I know only through an online presence. I would, for example, never give out personal information--my birthdate or address or the names of my kids--on the Internet. So what kinds of "friends" are we talking about anyway, and how far do we let them influence us? (Do people even realize or stop to think that many, many of the tweets they see are generated by Twitter bots? That a computer program can generate the illusion of popularity?)
Conversely, how do you decide which platform(s) to use? Because, let's face it, no one platform fits all needs or hits the right audiences. Yes, I use Twitter and Facebook (and the latter more than the former), but I've yet to figure out how to best make use of Tumblr or, for that matter, Instagram.
And there is also the issue of time: every moment I'm using social media or writing this blog is time I take away from writing a book, and you have the problem of diversifying your message. For example, what you post to Twitter might not be what you post to Facebook or Tumblr; or if you do cross-post, is what you're posting of interest to the people most likely to be using that particular medium?
These are all intriguing questions, and I'll be the first to admit that I have no definitive answers. Over the next couple of weeks, though, I'd love to hear what other people think has worked for them, or influenced their decision-making, just as I'll be thinking about what direction I might want to take for upcoming releases.