Sunday, March 11, 2012

a follow's not a book sale (though it's very nice): thoughts on social media

Over the past few months, INTERN has made a point of asking writer-friends and acquaintances about their experiences using Twitter, Facebook, blog tours, etc. to promote their books. So far, most authors INTERN has questioned have been ambiguous and even a little sheepish regarding the effectiveness of their social media efforts at garnering book sales. Meeting new writer-friends? Yes. Participating in a fun community? Yes. But selling more books to more readers? "To be perfectly honest, I don't know if it's making a difference or not" is a common confession.

Then this weekend, INTERN had an interesting conversation with a writer-friend whose first book came out in early 2011.
For the first six months the book was out, said writer-friend was determined to do everything she could to promote it. She blogged. She tweeted. She tumblred. She Facebooked. At her writer-friend's advice, she started a weekly vlog on YouTube, featuring goofy jokes, giveaways, and one-sided conversations with her cat.

After an initial spike in book sales following positive reviews in a couple of major newspapers, sales leveled out at 50-60 copies a week according to the Bookscan data provided by Amazon. In other words, no Da Vinci Code, but not too shabby. She kept plugging away, racking up an impressive number of blog posts and gaining a new follower or two every week (was that a lot? was the blog about to go viral? would those 76 followers get mad if she skipped a day?) Her vlog was doing OK too, with a hundred or so views racked up for the earlier videos and about a dozen views for the more recent ones (was that OK? how many views qualified as a success? how could there be 100 views but no comments?). Twitter was sort of fun, but it was unclear how much it was affecting book sales: she nevertheless gave herself a self-imposed minimum of five "original" tweets and five retweets or replies per day, and felt wracked with guilt whenever she missed her quota.

Six months in, she decided to run an experiment. In fifteen terrifying minutes, she obliterated her entire internet presence. Gone Facebook. Gone Twitter. Gone all sixty-seven blog posts and all twenty vlogs. Gone, even, the Group Discussion questions she'd written up for potential book club use, and the Resource Guide she'd spent hours putting together for readers who might want to know more about the issues addressed in the book. She even deleted the e-mail signature that linked to her book on Amazon and B&N.

Fast forward eight-ish months to two nights ago, when she and INTERN had this conversation. Her book sales since that night of rage? 50-60 copies a week. Occasionally 35. Occasionally 70. But most weeks, with a regularity that is almost freakish, somewhere between 50 and 60.

"I realized that the people who buy my book do not give a CRAP about my writing process or my favorite cupcake store. I don't know how they find out about my book. I guess people just recommend it to each other," she said.


The hype surrounding social media reminds INTERN of an ad she saw recently for Pediasure: "if you don't feed your toddler this nasty-looking vitamin-milkshake, you're putting him at a Disadvantage to other kids, who will surely grow Bigger and Stronger than he will!" In a world where you can do so much to promote your book (or rather, FEEL like you're doing so much), doing nothing or doing less is downright subversive.

How much do an individual author's social media efforts affect book sales? Is there a threshold at which social media becomes very effective (2000 followers? 5000 page views?) and beneath which social media doesn't have much of an impact? Is social media more important for building a long-term following than bumping sales on one particular book? Of the people who buy a certain book, how many are even aware of that author's social media presence?

Halfway through writing this post, it occurred to INTERN to look at her own book-buying habits. How effective has social media been at selling books to INTERN? A survey of the books INTERN bought in 2011 reveals:

-most of the authors whose books INTERN bought are either not on social media, or INTERN hasn't bothered to find out.
-INTERN bought several books by writer-friends she met online (by writer-friend, INTERN means a person with whom INTERN has shared ongoing, meaningful interactions—in other words, not just a person she follows).
-INTERN bought 1 or 2 books from writers she discovered on Twitter and Blogger but has not interacted with (by far the smallest category)

In short, INTERN follows plenty of writers whose books she isn't particularly interested in buying, and buys books from plenty of writers whose social media presence she isn't particularly interested in discovering. (INTERN feels vaguely evil confessing this, but why? INTERN is not so delusional as to expect that every person who enjoys her blog will also enjoy her books. A follow is a way to say, "your blog/twitter is interesting!" not "I do solemnly swear to buy your books, your friends' books, and your #fridayreads recommendations in all perpetuity, so help me God.")

Obviously, there are many authors for whom social media has been a crucial and undeniable asset (John Green's vlog comes to mind, and there are plenty of others). But now that INTERN has examined her own book-buying habits, she's more curious than ever: if a follow's not a book sale, what is it?

How many books have you bought as a result of social media (book trailer, tweet, blog post, blog tour, etc.)? How many books have you bought with NO input from social media? Are the social media book purchases from writers who feel like friends, or from other readers hyping the book? Do you buy every book from every writer you follow? INTERN wants to know!

Monday, March 5, 2012

indie vs traditional publishing: notes from a Big 6 book deal

INTERN has been following the self-publishing versus so-called “legacy” publishing debate for some time now, and is fascinated by how emotional the conversation has been, and how full of colorful personalities.

On one hand, we have Team Indie, who argue that publishers are blundering, outdated, inefficient dinosaurs who make an increasingly poor value proposition to authors. Not only will traditional publishers make a mess out of editing, designing, and promoting your book, Team Indie claims, but they’ll squeeze you out of all but a measly royalty on what books they do manage to sell.

On the other side of the field, we have Team (airquotes) Legacy, who fire back that most self-published books are poorly written, poorly designed, couldn’t-pay-me-to-read-‘em buckets of word-vomit not worth their ever-so-clever $1.99 price point on Amazon.

As a person who recently signed a book deal with an old-skool publisher, INTERN is naturally quite curious to know who’s right. Would INTERN have been better off if, instead of querying agents and going on submission, she’d hired a cover artist and slapped that sucker on Amazon? What has she gained by signing with a publisher, and what has she given up? Are there subtle benefits and drawbacks the indie-vs-legacy debate has overlooked?

Keeping in mind the fact that INTERN’s first novel isn’t due to be published until summer 2013, here are the benefits and drawbacks INTERN has noted so far.

BENEFIT: Editing

Some proponents of indie publishing claim that Big 6 publishers hardly take the time to nurture new authors or edit their books. INTERN’s Big 6 editor has been unfailingly helpful, available, insightful and patient as INTERN has clawed her way towards a final draft (the fact that INTERN has a novel deal at all seems to indicate that Big 6 publishers are still willing to take on semi-feral young writers and nurture them into readability, which is another post entirely).

DRAWBACK: Requiring patience

Prior to this book deal, INTERN (like many young writers) was in the habit of spewing out a manuscript, tinkering with it a little, then ditching it for a brand new one. Being made to stay at the dinner table until every last pea is cleaned off her writerly plate has been a good thing—an initiation into the discipline of truly finishing something for public consumption—but some days INTERN wonders what it would be like to simply fire off a novel, e-book it warts and all, and move on to the next one. Maybe nobody would notice the missing subplot resolutions or the hokey ending! Maybe it would have sold just fine three drafts ago, and INTERN would be a Kindle Millionaire by now instead of slaving away on yet another one! It’s possible! (alright, INTERN—finish those peas!)


Book advance is putting tofu in INTERN’s fridge.


Book advance means that INTERN’s novel needs to sell an intimidating number of copies in order to earn out. Whereas if she self-published, INTERN would consider herself to be ballin’ out of control if she sold 50 copies, and she wouldn’t have to worry about anyone else’s money/career riding on her book.

BENEFIT: Social cred

Not gonna lie: having a Book Deal with a Big Fancy Publisher is a useful thing to have in your back pocket. Even though an alarmingly small percentage of the population actually buys novels, an alarmingly large percentage of the population seems to look favorably on novelists themselves, for reasons INTERN cannot fathom. It’s like being acquainted with an asthmatic baron or the heiress to the fortune of a vaguely recognizable brand of baking powder; people get some obscure pleasure out of the fact that a real, live baking powder heiress is renting their (moulding and uninhabitable) apartment.

All INTERN knows is that crotchety relatives, overworked librarians, and potential landlords have gone from regarding INTERN with suspicion (dirty hippie!) to friendly interest (Actual Writer!) if/when she mentions her publisher. God knows this shouldn’t be a factor in anyone’s self-publishing vs legacy publishing decision, but it’s not nothing either.

DRAWBACK: Wait times

As a zillion people have already pointed out in a zillion places, traditional publishers can take a really, really long time to publish a book. Does INTERN wish her novel could appear in bookstores this summer instead of next summer? Of course! She’s impatient! Hell, by next summer INTERN will be an old lady. If INTERN was self-publishing, she could publish her book as soon as the final copyedits were done. No struggling to explain to baffled relatives why the book’s not coming out for a whole other year after it’s finished. No thinking about how freaking OLD and, like, WIZENED she’s going to be when she can finally hold a copy in her hands.


INTERN’s first novel is still early in the publishing process, so she can’t speak to indie publishing’s claims about bungled copyediting, nonexistent promotion, etc. etc. What she CAN tell you is that she has a better novel now than she did when she went on submission (this doesn't mean one can't arrive at an equally strong draft strong through other means and self-publish; just that, in INTERN's case, going through the traditional route has been helpful.)

What do you think of the publisher-bashing going on at some of the indie blogs? Can we all just get along? Is either option inherently worse or better, or is it a matter of what's the best fit for each author? Have you ever wondered if your book would have done better or worse if you'd gone a different route? INTERN wants to know!