Since I aspire to being a published writer, and will be eventually when I get some time and some butt glue to keep me in my writing chair, I haunt lots of writing sites and blogs and discussions to keep learning more about the business. Recently I came across a link to a post from Jane Friedman, one of the gurus in the indie biz talking about marketing, digital tools, and such. She was basically summarizing presentations at Digital Book World (DBW), and while I think JF has tons more experience than I, I found myself wanting to quibble with some of the conclusions (4 Lessons for Authors on the Current State of Publishing).
1. An author’s online presence is more critical than ever to long-term marketing strategy.
I don’t disagree that it is important, but hardly “critical” or even the greatest challenge in publishing. The changing nature of the marketplace from traditional to indie or self, the shifting weight from paper to digital, these are tectonic shifts. Self-marketing? Nowhere near as important as the primary role of the writer which is to write the best book they can first. JK Rowling wasn’t exactly burning up the digital world nor was her publisher when Harry Potter broke all the sales records around.
I think more accurately that being online with a solid, clean digital presence is the minimum, and a lot of people do screw that up, no disagreement there. I also disagree entirely with the premise that traditional publishers should advise their authors how to do online engagement — not least because most of them haven’t figured out anything remotely like “best practices”, so following their advice would be kind of painful. Far more likely is for groups of authors to figure it out, if only the Authors Guild-like organizations would get off their “woe is me” complaints against Amazon and focus on actually helping their members.
Take for example the suggestion by one presenter that the digital page of the author show up on the website (good) but prior to going to Amazon. Actually, the metrics work against that recommendation — Amazon is likely to show up higher if someone searches for author + book + title anyway since Amazon is a bigger site, but the metrics are that every extra click you put between the reader and the buy button reduces the likelihood of a purchase. This is why Amazon patented the one-click purchase button — no friction between you and the sale. Same with Prime Membership — shipping is free, no need to calculate it, just click and it’s shipped.
I do like the suggestions re: the power of WordPress though.
3. Learn to find your readers, go where they go, and speak their language.
Also known in normal business parlance as customer research, I was surprised Friedman didn’t highlight how many authors do what the experts suggest (find your readers, track them online, go to where they hang out) and then do the worst thing they can possibly do — market themselves like spammers on steroids. There is nothing more annoying to me than to have someone contact me to say, “Hey, I see you read X and reviewed it on Amazon, how about reading my book, Y” which sounds fine, I know, but they don’t do it well. I get emails that are badly written, often completely unrelated to the book I reviewed, and has nothing whatsoever that I’m interested in. Like most online people, we’re complex individuals…I have reviewed Bey Blades for Jacob, self-help stuff in a genre that I’m not normally active in, mysteries, historical, romance, non-fiction, etc. If the expert advice was to track me, their results would be pretty scattered. It is merely a starting point. But equally, going into a forum on discussions of, say, single parenting and then posting about your book on single parenting is a really good way to piss people off. The dark side of marketing is marketing in places that are not designed for marketing. Innovative? Sure. Spamming? Most definitely. And so I think there should be huge red flags around this section to warn the less-aware reader.
4. Pricing is the industry’s Achilles heel.
I love the work that “Author Earnings Data Guy” is doing, some really transformative analysis. Obviously, like any data analysis, the result is only as good as both your data sources and your assumptions of what is relevant or not. Correlation is not causality, and the casual data person often mistakes the too, but DG is doing some solid work. With better data, that would only improve. I’m not sure I agree with all of the methodological approaches he takes, but it is arguably solid. (Like many types of analysis, you can weight or include certain factors or exclude them, not sure if I would do it exactly the way DG does, but it’s likely personal semantics more than there being “one right way”, almost a philosophy of analysis question, not a criticism). However, I think the analysis does have one key flaw in it, which is the same problem all types of analysis of this sort too — extrapolating from the group to the individual case.
So, for example, overall, one could argue that debut authors could benefit from a different pricing structure than established authors. Or, to put it more finely, debut authors should price lower at first and higher later. Except there’s no real basis to say “higher later”, it’s just assumed, not a lot of data to extrapolate total sales vs. short-term price points. Nor can it quantify short-term sales, or long-term price points. And there’s no crystal ball to test one method with one book and no time machine to go back and do it differently. What works in the aggregate rarely has anything to do with the single entry, the standard deviation for a single selection from a large data group is just too large. If that seems too esoteric an explanation, think of a simple author offering and the ability of other authors’ experience to estimate:
- How many copies are going to be sold?
- What price point will generate the most sales?
- Which venue will garner the most sales?
- Which format will garner the most sales?
How another author’s books sold has nothing whatsoever to do with whether your book will sell. The biggest variable is the quality of the story, the compelling nature of the prose. The ephemeral nature of “good book” that can’t be captured by the data. What it CAN tell big publishing is that overall, the majority of their authors would benefit from it. Could be 60% of them, but there’s no way to know which 60%.
Like the classic idiom that 50% of all marketing is wasted, but nobody can tell you which 50%.
The range of experiences from individual authors is just too great to pull out a lesson learned that says “do it this way”. What you can get is some ideas of some factors i.e. debut authors experimented with lower price points and some had success. Yet, by the same token, most of those debut authors may simply have had lower price points because they didn’t publish with BigPub. Another variable you can’t quantify (i.e. why BigPub thought the ones they chose were likely successes).
And so the “best practices” seem dangerous to me. I would fare more comfortable if analysis showed that playing with pricing allowed people to find a sweet spot — that would be a good practice to emulate — or that they said, “Here’s some things to consider” like a menu along with some things to “avoid” because no one has got them to ever work. More importantly though, like most writing advice, there is a danger that someone starts to interpret “some authors” as “most authors” and then “all authors” and then “this is a rule of publishing”. That’s what happens when people say “Never use a passive voice” or “never switch PoV”. It started off with people saying “few authors do it well” and morphed to become “you should never do it”.
Then again, maybe I’m just picking nits.