I’m taking a day or two off from fictional writing to clear my head after completing the rough draft of Thicker than Blood. So this mostly means I stare at Twitter and read whatever links catch my eye, or I chat with folks to pass the time. True, it’s not really productive, but usually it’s a great way to unwind.
Last night, I talked to a writer who is far more well known than me, and she was upset over some of the hateful things she’d seen on social sites. I knew what she meant, and I expressed sympathy and suggested that sometimes it was just better to pull back and stay offline for a while to avoid the stress.
This got me thinking about two things, as it usually does. The first is that, holy shit, I talked to a famous writer, and I felt like we had a connection, even if it was just for a brief exchange. Every time some big-time writer responds to me, I’m struck again by how social media enables me to talk to anyone, anywhere. And sure, lots of folks don’t ever respond. They probably get so much incoming chatter that it would be exhausting to answer everyone, or even a small section. So when some celebrity writes back to me, there’s this moment of admiration I have for the technology that makes this possible.
But this writer brings up the bad behavior of a lot of people, and then I have to think about all the downsides of the technology. This enabling platform gives a lot of people an over-inflated sense of entitlement to speak out on everything that annoys them, and they feel they have the right to bully other users of any given platform under the banner of free speech. They declare, “I have the right to say these things,” but never ponder that the hateful comments they make reach another human being somewhere on the other end of the connection.
It’s not just new social media, but all of the online experience that causes some people to disassociate their behavior from any consequence of their “free speech.” So gay bashing is okay. Sexism is fine. Racism is acceptable. Some people who claim they don’t go in for this hate speak have no trouble mocking the young or the elderly, perhaps feeling that ageism isn’t a real ism. and taken together, all this hate feels like an endemic shift in peoples’ ability to relate to anyone not inside their social clique. There’s no self-examination where these people ask, “But what are the results of my online behavior?”
It’s no secret that I’m highly volatile online, and my always online nature means that regulars have seen me in my up phases and in the midst of my worst mood swings. But I actually don’t like being angry, and over the years, I’ve pulled away from many social platforms because I got tired of feeling angry just surfing through my timeline of so-called friends. And I say so-called because in a list of a few hundred people on a social network, there might only be 4 or 5 who are actual friends who I spoke to regularly.
To be clear, a lot of those friends were decent folks. I’m not trying to paint with a broad brush and say “Everyone is fucked.” But there’s days when my stream would be full of petty shit and constant prejudices, and even if someone called them on it, wait an hour and the dissenter was deleted. And it’s these people who live in a perfect wind tunnel that are the most entitled. Being online as an equal isn’t about sharing opinions. It’s about musing on their nitpicks with other people. And if you got a problem with that, your opinion doesn’t matter.
So now I’m down to Twitter, and yes, there are days when my stream is so vile and toxic that I have to close Tweetdeck and go kill something in a video game to vent. But then there’s other days when I learn so much about the world around me, and I get little snippets of peoples’ lives, both the famous and the regular folks. I get a constant stream of reading recommendations when people post reviews, and I get crazy recipe ideas when someone posts their latest gastronomical experiment.
But, I don’t really see Twitter as a great promotion platform for myself. Maybe I could tweet my own stuff more often and get better results, but I’ve been finding that I get better result by NOT promoting my stuff than I do by pushing it.
Which leads to my other topic. See, it’s been floating around Twitter the last two days that the average ebook author makes less than 500 sales. And, in pondering my years-long slog through the fields of self-publishing and self-promotion, I tallied up that I’ve sold quite a few more books than 500.
How? How did this happen? For the life of me, I do not know. Every attempt I made at marketing has been abysmal, and my efforts at creating hype for my work has never been met with more than the barest whimper. It’s not just a matter of sales. My pitches didn’t generate interest in any of the places I tried. I’ve been in forums, talked to people in games like Second Life, hung out on a lot of social sites, and got involved with Project Wonderful to attempt banner advertising.
And here’s the brain bender. While I was promoting, my sales would tank. Then I’d predictably enter a depression and wander away for a few weeks, only to come back and find I’d made sales. Not on the titles I was promoting, just random sales from all over my back catalog. I’ve rambled about this phenomena before, how my inaction seems more effective than anything I do to sell my stuff. And this is why I’m constantly puzzled by social media. I love Twitter and the level of interaction I get out of it. But despite my being a Twitter regular for years, I still have yet to see any project explode with interest from my followers. I’ve learned not to mistake a follower as being a potential reader, because every project I pitched got hideous sales results. Every time, I’d tweet a bit more often, usually making a once an hour single blurb tweet with a link and a request for a RT. And I can get RTs. But getting traffic and sales from those retweeted pitches is not so easily done. And, the people who RT aren’t buying the latest book, either.
And yet…I wait a few months and release something else, and suddenly that book I promoted two months ago gets a few sales. The books with no covers pick up a few sales, even though I never advertised them. What doesn’t sell? The thing I’m currently waving around, trying to get your attention with. Of course.
I’m getting to the point of accepting Twitter solely as my source of social interaction. Sure, I’ll still put up a link to a project, but I no longer rush to my link stats to see what effect my ad had. History had taught me already, they have no noticeable effect on traffic or sales.
But, what Twitter does is give me a constant stream of new ideas and new inspirations. It gives me a sense of connection to the world in profound ways, and even if I can’t be real friends with every one of my followers, there are many followers who I would call friends. Every once in a great while, one of my Twitter friends will say they’re coming to Milan, and I get the chance to meet them in real life. I don’t know if I could have this level of connection if we were all still using snail mail to write to pen pals. (Yes, I had pen pals before I knew what the internet was. My first serious anime collection was set up by mailing blank VHS tapes to a pen pal and having him dub his fan-sub tapes for me.) Certainly, I don’t think I could write a letter to a big-publishing writer and have it replied to. I’m just one more letter in the pile that will be handled by an assistant. But online, I have an equal chance of being acknowledged and included in any discussion, even if my social ranking is much lower than the other people involved in the conversation.
So, combining these two topics, I look back at all the forum exits, the deleted social media accounts, and my disastrous sales efforts, and I ask “if I’m so lousy at my job, how am I selling more books than the average ebook authors?”
And there’s two answers. One is, the average author is probably over-selling their products. They likely have a blog where they only talk about writing, which attracts a blog audience of other writers, but does not necessarily mean they’re readers or folks willing to share links. In fact, a lot of those writers visiting the blog will likely be making the same constant “me-me-me” promotional pushes. So the problem here is, they’re tooting their horn too much.
And, the other factor is, I have a long tail sales model that’s starting to pay off bit by bit. A person sees my name next to a retweeted link, and instead of clicking it, they Google me and end up on a random book link at Amazon or some other ebook store. They read that blurb, and then, they’re interested enough to buy. There’s no directed action going on here. It’s the wandering nature of social media users that draws their curiosity, and I can’t direct their attention to this link or that. In a way, it’s almost like people have to stumble over me before they notice my work.
I’m not saying this a bad thing. In fact, my own methods of discovering new music and new books and games comes more from the random tweets shared by customers than any self-promoted linkage does. I don’t really care if this author says their book is really good, because all authors think that, even the crummiest hacks. Nobody has ever said, “Here’s my latest book. It’s shit, but you should buy it anyway.” But if someone I follow says, “I just read this, and it had me up all night,” I will go check out the blurb and consider buying it. If someone I know liked it, there’s a chance I might too, so why not check it out?
If there is a sure-fire way to promote a book online, I think it relies as much on luck of the draw as any conventional publishing deal does. Certainly, having a good book helps, but an overenthusiastic promotion campaign will make any good book look just like all the crap titles being promoted online. It’s almost impossible to tell what will be good based on self-promotion, so folks filter out promotion except from the writers they really love. So a promotion from me doesn’t look any different from the guy working for Del Rey.
Which gets me back around to pondering the value of sincere fan promotion. Friends offline and online both value this sincerity from fans. Looking at successful books, both pro and self-published, the real secret of their success is in those fans who picked up the story and loved it enough to gush. But how did those initial fans get plugged into the work, if not through the authors themselves? More importantly, how crucial was the authors’ social network presence in securing those early fans?
If followers cannot be mistaken for readers, then they also cannot be arbitrarily labeled as fans either. Which makes any social media platform harder to study. I cannot say for instance, why I sold so many copies of Touched and Blood Relations, or why NINJAWORLD continues to sit unsold to anyone. All I can say for certain is that it’s not me moving units. So, how did I sell over 500 books if all I’m doing is stumbling blindly?
I don’t know. All I know is, I’m grateful for the people I connect with online, and I’m grateful for their support, even if I don’t always understand the connection between their help and my ballyhooing.