This morning I read a blog post that pointed me toward a Publishers Weekly article about how appearing on the cover of the New York Times Book Review does (or does not) affect sales. It turns out the effect is pretty startling, if only because it does next to nothing at all.
I encourage you to read the article in question because I don’t want to summarize everything it says here, but the distilled version is that low-profile books that get what ought to be the biggest spotlight in the book biz actually only receive tiny bumps in sales and those bumps don’t last long.
On the one hand this would seem to indicate still further that print media is becoming irrelevant in the online age. Fewer people read newspapers, so fewer people read the Book Review and fewer people buy the books featured there. I don’t think we can discount this trend when discussing any sort of print review, not just these. However, I don’t feel it’s insignificant that the books analyzed by the Publishers Weekly article are seriously niche publications, ones that weren’t going to move a lot of copies anyway. Books on economics and motherhood have limited audiences at the best of times, so how much improvement in the numbers could we reasonably expect?
The blog post that got me reading about this went on to argue that tools like Twitter, blogs and Facebook are far more effective at driving sales. Unfortunately we don’t have actual Nielsen BookScan numbers to work from so this conclusion is purely speculative. Yes, some people who use these media are selling startling numbers of books — it should be noted that these are ebooks, and not print books — but it’s easy to point to exceptions and say they represent the whole. They don’t. There are some print authors who move tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of their books, but everyone knows these are deviations from the norm and that the overwhelming majority of authors are moving (if they’re lucky) a tiny fraction of that. Most print authors sell a few hundred copies and that’s it. I suspect that this is true of ebook authors, as well, though we never hear about them.
I would agree that social media can be a powerful tool to help or hinder sales. They simply represent word of mouth on steroids, and word of mouth is probably the most effective sales tool there is. As an author I have only scratched the barest surface of what’s possible when it comes to utilizing social media to raise my profile. I have my Facebook page and I have my Twitter feed but they reach only the smallest number of the thousands of people who have bought my first book. How to expand that number? I don’t know a way to do that without compromising my standards as a user of social media.
I know there are authors out there who follow thousands and thousands of people on Twitter in order to earn follow-backs they can later employ to distribute marketing material, but when I started using Twitter four years ago I decided that I would never follow more people than I could actually read. It’s impossible to keep up with 1,000+ people, all tweeting, and I don’t think it’s fair to say you’re “following” someone when you aren’t even seeing what they write.
I also know there are some authors who choose to use their personal Facebook accounts as a way to push content on readers. I don’t agree with the practice of “friending” people I don’t know, and so I established my Facebook page as a place where people could go to keep up with news about me and my work. My friendships are actual friendships, not means to a marketing end.
And then there’s the blog. You know I try to update every weekday with something interesting, whether it be reviews, rumination on writing or discussion of that part of my personal life that I am willing to share with strangers. I often talk about the challenges of raising an autistic child, not because I want to engender sympathy, but because some parent out there might find my experiences useful. I want my blog to be a window into my world and I don’t feel wholly comfortable exploiting people’s attention by bombarding them with advertisements. Sure, I talk about my published work, but I’m not trying to sell anything. I find that tacky.
I’m not telling you, my regular reader, anything new. Back in February I wrote a blog entry about leveraging social media to sell myself. I reached the same conclusions then that I have now. This is what you get. This is what I’m willing to give. And in return for your respect for my sharing limits, I do you the favor of respecting you by not shilling my work incessantly. I don’t even have a link to either of my books in this entry, though it’d be easy to shoehorn them in.
It may be that because of my unwillingness to sell myself aggressively that I’ll never be a best-selling author, but I don’t buy that premise. People come to read an author because the author’s output is worth reading, not because they maximize their search-engine hits or exploit their online relationships. No matter how many tricks you pull, if you don’t have the goods you aren’t going to make the sales. At least long-term, anyway. Maybe you can fool a few thousand people into downloading your ebook or buying your print book, but if the book itself is no good you’ll never be able to put that one over on your readership again. The trust will be violated.
As much as I’d love to see a livelier bunch of commenters on my blog or more followers on my Twitter feed or Facebook page, I would rather spend my energy writing books. If I wanted to be in marketing I would have taken that road years ago and gotten a job at an ad agency somewhere. I’m a writer. I write. If people want to read that writing then I’m thrilled to death, but I’m not twisting arms to get that to happen.