As the project to monetize social media fumbles the self-epublishing industry's defects will be laid bare.
“Authors – become a success through building an ‘internet platform’!”. For almost five years we’ve been subjected to the same message. At the London College of Communication‘s iGeneration conference this year, I heard that social media was now the only way to sell books, and witnessed glowing examples of the successful use of SM from epub authors such as Joanna Penn (who has her own consultancy and sells $99 multimedia courses on How to Write A Novel). At the Hay festival last month, I heard Scott Pack – self-described “blogger, publisher and author of moderately successful toilet books” – declare that mainstream media, papers and TV “no longer function in selling books”; that the net is now the only way for authors to – you’ve heard it before – “build a platform”. Already every fourth tweet I receive is from an “indie” author trying to self-promote, saying things like “Hoping for a cheeky RT of my last tweet on my book & the 99p offer. B v grateful.” And another – “Hope all is well! My dad just published his latest book on Amazon – if possible, I was wondering if you had any tips for him getting his book reviewed by any relevant bloggers. Appreciate any insight.” And then there are the hundreds of tweets from social media ebook consultants and so-called specialists offering “the key to online marketing success”.
I’m convinced that epublishing is another tech bubble, and that it will burst within the next 18 months. The reason is this: epublishing is inextricably tied to the structures of social media marketing and the myth that social media functions as a way of selling products. It doesn’t, and we’re just starting to get the true stats on that. When social media marketing collapses it will destroy the platform that the dream of a self-epublishing industry was based upon.
First, though, I conducted my own experiment. I decided to take these “platformers” at their word and seriously consider the possibility of self-promoting my books online (I even bought an iPhone so that I could get with the revolution). I am not alone in this: authors who have contracts with the big six publishers are now being asked, or obliged, to “get out there” and self-promote; something that 10 years ago would have been seen as selling-out is fast becoming the norm.
What follows is what I discovered about self-promotion in the digital utopia of social media marketing.
The 20% author and the fine art of self-promotion
As Joanna Penn says: “In a world with lots of talent, success requires more than simply being great.” She advocates, “more effective networking, of course!” Self-styled eSpecialists such as Penn often invoke the 80/20 rule which advises that, as a sales person (in this case an author), you should spend 20% of your time writing and 80% of your time networking through social media. In tune with this, self-epublishing author Louise Voss recently informed me that the success of her ebooks came about as a result of spending about 80% of her time marketing (her writing partner also had a marketing background).
And if that seems like a limitation on your creative time, consider the case of San Diego-based “book publicity and promotions expert” Paula Margulies, who is taking the 80/20 rule even further. She claims that when tweeting and Facebooking you should spend “80% of your time posting about things other than your book, and 20% selling. That’s right – 80% of what you post should not be a sales pitch.” Why does she recommend this? “Because readers are human beings, who long to make connections with others … They join social networking sites not to receive non-stop reminders to buy, but to develop relationships.” Margulies advocates that authors blog and tweet about hobbies and personal activities: things you like, and which you think will draw other people to you. Essentially, 80% of your tweeting should be about cats, food, sport, what’s happening outside your window – all the things that millions of non-writers tweet about. This theory is backed up by many other self-appointed social media specialists.
Let’s look at the stats. If we take Margulies and Penn seriously, how much time does this leave for actually writing? Most self-epublished authors hold down a day job, so let’s give them three hours a day, after work, for author activities. That’s 1,095 hours a year. Reduce this to 20% (since you have to spend 80% of your time covertly self-promoting online), and you get 219 writing hours a year, which works out as 18 12-hour days to write a book.
Which could be fine – let’s face it, Amanda Hocking famously wrote one of her bestselling ebooks in only three weeks. But then again, Hocking has recently given up on self-promotion and self-epublishing to go with a mainstream publisher. “I want to be a writer,” she explained. “I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling emails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full-time corporation.”
So, maybe tweeting is too time-consuming. Let’s leave aside the question of whether Twitter and Facebook can actually help you sell anything and overlook the fact that only 10% of tweets ever get retweeted, and remain positive, believe in ourselves and move on. Let’s get some professional help in creating that platform. Here’s what can be done.
1. Hire a company to teach you how to tweet better
It’s possible that the reason you’re not seeing a big rise in book sales online is because you’re not tweeting properly. There are plenty of sites with online tips from those who claim they hold the “key secrets to going viral”. There are even those who claim that learning how to use Twitter makes you a superior writer.
If you want to learn their methods, you can attend one of the hundreds of new courses that have sprung up, and pay hundreds of pounds to master your 140 characters. Or …
2. Hire a company to generate your tweets for you
If you’re still failing and are daunted at how much effort it takes to spend 80% of 80% of your time being chatty, you can hire a company to do it for you. Book Tweeting Service’s website claims: “We tweet your book, blog or author website to 60,000+ readers, editors, publishers and writers who are following us on our Twitter accounts. We will send 5 TWEETS PER DAY which we then share with our 5 Twitter accounts (=30 tweets) to get you maximum exposure.” Book Tweeting Service will write your tweets for you. Its tweet plans start with a one-day plan at $29 (£18).
While this frees time to actually write, the downside is that your tweets may not come across as particularly “you”, which might alienate any followers you already had. And, of course, you’ll be paying almost £10,000 for a year’s worth of tweets. But as these companies say, “Online marketing is a full-time job for professionals.” And they should know: many of them are, in fact, just good old-fashioned marketing companies who’ve developed an internet wing in order to get in on the feeding frenzy. Most, however, are sole-trader start-ups – for that, read solitary, self-taught people who have set up a page as a specialist. Many of them are also self-epublishing authors, trying to make a buck so they can buy time to do their 20% of writing.
3. Get family, friends and Facebook friends to post reviews on Amazon
Many self-epublishing authors claim that you can “trigger Amazon’s algorithms” and get on to “Amazon recommendations”, after you get 30 – or 50 – or 100 favourable reviews. They sometimes say this gleefully, as if it’s a trick they’ve learned and are secretly passing on to you. The idea is that you contact all of your friends on Facebook and get them to post reviews. Although it’s a bit crass, and may be dishonest, it’s not illegal.
The problem with this is what I term the Facebubble, or what Eli Pariser calls Filter Bubbles. The hard fact is that since Facebook started tracking our behaviour, no matter whether you have 1,000 friends or 100, you’re only going to get updates from the two dozen people you’ve most recently been in touch with. You’re not speaking, let alone marketing, to the vast world of the internet at all. You are only a few steps removed from your old school friends and your mum. This problem is compounded when you try to sell books directly on Facebook to your friends. You’re in the Facebubble and you’re stuck with the 80/20 rule. You’re spending 20% of 80% your time trying to market to the two dozen people who will see your feed. So you sell 10 books, and you feel dirty for having given the hard sell to your mates.
So what’s wrong? Why aren’t you sweeping ahead as a new author in the social media revolution? Maybe you’ve just come to it too late. If you didn’t start doing this when social media began then you’re already years behind the pioneers: everyone else and their auntie is now trying these very strategies, precisely because the pioneers are now selling courses and books on how to be as successful as they are (if they’re so successful, why do they have to do all this consultancy work?) And, anyway, how can you compete with the 1.1 million new writers who have downloaded their ebooks on to Amazon? Is there any space left for you on this platform? Does the platform even exist, or is it a vast collective delusion?
4. Buy Facebook advertising
Got your Facebook and Twitter pages, multiplied your friends and followers to 1,000 or 5,000, and still haven’t managed to sell more books than you would have done standing on a street corner? Try buying Facebook advertising.
These are the little picture squares on the right hand side of the screen, which lead users to a book or author page that can be “liked”. On that book page you can post live links where people can buy the book from Amazon, Waterstones or your publisher – alongside reviews, or things of general interest. The theory is that when you build up a big enough “like” base, people will actually start to buy.
How much does it cost? Facebook advertising is on a sliding scale, so the more you spend the more visible they claim they will make you. Based on your targeting options, Facebook suggests a bid of $0.33 per click. Users claim you can get 51,000 clicks for $650. A click, though, is not a “like” – and even a “like” doesn’t necessarily lead to anything.
A writer I know has, after two months of buying Facebook ads, gained 490 new “likes”, but the number of books he sold through this was only three. This is just one example, of course, but who would you ask to give you honest comprehensive stats? Self-promoting authors? Facebook, whose entire financial survival depends on selling ads?
5. Hire a company to create five-star reviews on Amazon for your book
Things are getting drastic and you’ve crossed the line already, so why not go illegal and buy fake reviews?
In January someone on Fiverr (“the world’s largest marketplace for small services” posted an ad: “I will write two Amazon reviews from two different reviewers, for anything that you send me, ebooks apps…for $5”. Elsewhere, one of my publishers was approached recently by a company, which has since mysteriously vanished from the net, offering just such a service – 30 reviews for £100. This is blatantly immoral but becoming widespread. How many five-star reviews does it take to trigger the Amazon algorithms, now that others are getting in on the game? How much are you willing to pay and risk to find out?
6. Give your books away for free
Ultimately, you may find that the only option left available to you is the one that internet gurus and marketers expound in articles such as “Why giving away thousands of free books is a good thing”. Again, this is about platforming – developing a readership base of people who will, hopefully, come back and buy the books when you put the prices up. This is the reasoning behind the Amazon top 100 free ebooks lists. This is not, ewriters claim, about ripping authors off, nor about creating a race to the bottom in prices that will ultimately destroy Amazon’s competitors in the book market.
But does giving your books away for free work? A test case is another author I know who went on to the Amazon free deal for a day and entered the top 10 Kindle Free Chart. He had 700 downloads within four hours. However, over the next day, when the price had gone back to £4.99, and in the three weeks that followed, the total number of copies sold was zero. He had, somehow, failed to build his platform.
Some authors have even found ways of making money by encouraging other writers to give their books away. Paulo Coelho, the 65-year-old worldwide bestseller and “Twitter mystic”, now runs an expensive boot camp for wannabe e-authors, in which he promotes his spiritual philosophy of “self-piracy”. However, Coelho fails to mention that he made his millions in mainstream publishing in its heyday, or to explain that he carried his existing fanbase with him on to the net, so he isn’t actually a verifiable example of building a net platform. He also seems to have overlooked the likelihood that if he had given his books away over the last 40 years, he would never have been able to build the career that he now enjoys.
The theory goes that if you give your books away for free, one day you’ll see a return. But when is that day coming? For those who self-epublish and those who have been downs