Monday, July 9, 2012

Promoting your book via Social Media == Cargo Culting

We've all heard the stories, seen the tweets, the Facebook pages with a million "likes." We want that. We want a huge following behind our books. We want fans eager to consume our next project the second it becomes available. We want forum discussions and blog posts postulating things about the worlds and characters we create. We want entire deviantart accounts devoted to fan art with our books as inspiration. We want gold-shitting unicorns and toy rockets.

In short, we want the world to notice us in spite of the improbability of this actually occurring, and it seems the general consensus on how to do that is to use social media channels. Other people have done it and been successful, so our attempts should be just as successful, right?

That, my friends, is Cargo Culting. From the article:
The term "cargo cult" has been used metaphorically to describe an attempt to recreate successful outcomes by replicating circumstances associated with those outcomes, although those circumstances are either unrelated to the causes of outcomes or insufficient to produce them by themselves.
(For some reason, the concept makes me think of that movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. I haven't seen it in probably twenty years, so I can't even remember what it's about except the vague recollection of natives getting dropped on by western civilization. Probably isn't even a relevant reference.)

A lot of the philosophy behind social media's popularity as a marketing channel is the Snowball Effect. You like something > one of your friends sees that you like something and they like it > one of their friends ... You get the idea. It sounds fantastic on paper, and this is "word of mouth" in action. So why doesn't it work?

Well, two reasons, really. The first is that most of the things you "like" are already popular. These are the things that get attention because people have already heard of them. Fifty Shades of Gray probably gets hundreds of likes per hour day, but it's already a huge smash. It doesn't need your "likes." You know what does? Quality fiction such as Michael Sullivan's Riyria Revelations. I say quality because these epic fantasy novels are not Twilight fanfic. I'm not kidding.

The other reason is actually simpler: no one cares what you like. Sure, you can recommend things to like-minded people, and they may pick them up, but chances are they've already heard of such things and just needed a little push, but people are generally wary about the entertainment they consume. They want to feel like they found that band or that book, that it belongs to them, and they get upset when it gets popular. Okay, so maybe only hipsters feel this way, but my point is that people don't really want to be directly told what to consume. (They want to be indirectly told, which is why advertising exists in the first place)

The simple fact is that creating a Twitter account, Facebook page, and custom website for your book are fine things to do, but you can't expect them to (on their own) garner you readers. It's great to have a presence, but you've got to build that presence and make people notice you.

Back to cargo culting. The reason social media is so popular as a marketing channel is because it's free. Word of mouth is free, and they're generally thought of as the same thing. But are they? I know a company who recently used a "tweeting service" to generate buzz. This service employs either bots or some type of computer-savvy immigrants willing to work for low wages (usually both) to tweet, retweet, like, and generally give the impression of popularity. Did/does it work? No. It absolutely does not work. It is cargo culting. It is assuming that just because a popular book has a facebook page and twitter account, having those will make your book popular. As documented by the thousands of Indie authors who still have day jobs, this just isn't true. At all.

To further clarify the illusion, have a look at this article: The Great Social Media Flim-Flam
(this paragraph sums it up best)
"If you’re a writer and you follow a bunch of other writers [which we all do], 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?"
My Twitter feed is so full of other authors that I barely deem it worth checking anymore. I don't know these people, they follow me because they did a search for people who have "writer" or "author" in their bio and followed me. Did they check out my books or my website? No, probably have no idea what kind of books I even write based on what some of them write. And I get new followers here and there without even posting on a regular basis. They just find me, follow me, and hope for the best.

The Indie author market is not so saturated that we can afford to all buy each others' books and live comfortably off of that. Still, I have an idea I may employ to see if it will actually make a dent in all this silence and confusion that is Promoting Your Book On The Internet.

But, seriously, take another look at Susan's post. Look at the [horrible] pie chart:

Only 11.8% of readers, according to Publishers Weekly, discover books via their various social networks. Blogs are just as low. The point of her article is why should we be putting so much time into something with such a low return on investment? and I couldn't agree more. I think social media as a marketing tool is ridiculous, and whoever had the idea in the first place should have been laughed out of the room.

So, then, how do we market books? Well, that's a work in progress and I think it always will be. People are doing some interesting things with Goodreads, and all that, but I think the simple truth we have to face is that people don't read books. It's incredibly rare that I meet a person who gives half a shit about books, much less reads them, who isn't planning on writing one themselves. We're all busy watching Netflix, or going to see Avengers for the twentieth time. Books are competing with more accessible forms of entertainment, and no one is spending money to market them because books don't really fly off the shelves like they used to.

Should we give up? Of course not, but we're going to have to figure something else out. Social media isn't it. I think, if we can just get people excited about reading again, we'd have more readers who'd buy more books. Easier said than done, but based on the pie chart the highest possible value comes from personal recommendations.

Maybe, just maybe, if we authors can get over ourselves and our fears enough to humbly approach those we know who read and recommend them our own books, they'll read. If they read, they might enjoy. If they enjoy, they might review or tell their friends (with their mouths, not their facebooks and twitters). This isn't a dig at anyone for "not supporting me," rather it's an earnest plea that if you do know an author, there is one very easy way to support them. If you read, read. If you review, review.

If you do neither, maybe it's about time you started.

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  1. I couldn't agree more with your final assessment. Reading and fostering the desire to read in others is the best thing we can do as writers. Will that mean sales or readership for our own work? Who knows, but we can only put it out there and keep writing. Good post.

  2. I concur: very good post. I'm frustrated with the whole social media buzz. Like you, I never check my twitter feed because it's the same old drivel every day. To be honest, I think a lot of the time that people spend with social media is better spent writing and practising.


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