Monday, July 26, 2010

It's Been A While... Theory versus practice of book marketing

Gosh 9 months already, like a pregnancy coming to term. Although this post has needed to be induced with all the other things going on. Where did the time go? Why, into marketing of course...

But just like London buses, no posts here in an age, then 3 come along all at once. One is on Twitter and the other on the value of artists in society and how we approach pricing our work.

Don't think I've been idling in all this time fair reader. In fact I've never been so busy writing in all my life. This blog is the one that has been pushed to the back of the queue, as every week I'm writing a new 1000 word piece of flash fiction, posting to the "Spectator" arts and culture blog, posting a book review to Booksquawk commenting on blog posts of others and other people's flash (see below), making goodness knows how many tweets through both my Twitter accounts and posting pieces on various parts of literary craft and the ever-changing literature market here, there and everywhere. Oh and to counterbalance all this virtual world activity, I've joined not one but two writers' groups just to re-engage with other writers in the flesh.

Very stimulating, very thought-provoking, very indirect. For while these each are I believe, a worthwhile endeavour for its own sake and all loosely bracketed under my marketing campaign, they are very indirect forms of reaching potential customers. None of them involve the book itself, but offer more of me the person and hopefully people will be attracted to the book by osmosis. But it's hard to get any data to back that dynamic up. Take Twitter for example, you build up a virtual relationship with someone you come to consider as a friend. At what point in the relationship do you drop in "maybe you'd be interested in my book?" At any time it can seem a betrayal or a manipulation at best. Answer, I don't do it.

Before I go on to examine some of these indirect marketing strategies, I'll present evidence of a direct one. I have a 20 page sample of the novel up at To date, it's had 5700 views. Now if everyone of those views had turned into a sale, I would have smashed my own sales target. Of course they haven't and I've no real way of knowing how many sales have emerged from this source. So this direct form of marketing, successful in its own terms in that 5000+ views is a very acceptable figure, yet even this is probably not having a huge impact on sales of the book itself.

So indirect forms of marketing, a sort of getting my name out there qua name rather than qua book, is likely to have less success even than that. There definitely seems to be a giant leap from someone liking what you have to say about the status of the "hero" in the early 21st century in a blog post somewhere, to them being moved to stump up money for your novel. It seems a bit more than theory leading them to chase down the practice.

I think there seems a fundamental flaw to social networking marketing. Because so much quality product is online FOR FREE, the discerning surfer can get their fill of really good literature (or art or whatever they're interested in) without having to declare their credit card details. Freemium may just not work as a model when you are starting out as a neophyte producer. Once you've achieved Seth GODin like status, then you can seemingly charge the earth for your product, but how to make the jump from one to the other...

Sometimes this glaring reality bugs the hell out of me, other times I don't care. There are other forms of validation. Take a Twitter hashtag community called FridayFlash Every Friday writers all over the globe post a new piece of flash fiction (1000 words or less) on their blog and tweet it with the hashtag Fridayflash. All the members of this community are thus alerted to each others' work and they read, comment and then re-tweet it to their own twitter followers. It's a great way to get your work read, to direct people to your blog. How many of such readers are not themselves writers? Probably very few. So it is a validation, but it is writers mainly talking to other writers. And thereby that reflects out wider when you are trying to pimp your book, it is mainly a message sent out to other writers, who as we all know are penniless!

None of this really diverts me from my original business plan, my sales target and means of achieving it. It has however made me extend the period devoted to marketing from 6 months to 18 months. If it achieves anything, it's going to be via a slow build is the one lesson I've learned. I've still to receive final edits of 4 of my 5 video readings for example, and they were shot in January. These delays always happen and you just have to allow for them. What it will enable is a fresh impetus when they do land on video file-sharing sites. So the way I look at it is as a happy adjunct of the marketing drive, I've also developed these rather joyous online relationships, not necessarily with customers or dedicated fans, but with a group of people who are just fantastic to know.

The other direct form of selling is via live readings. I've done about 7 now, always in tandem with other writers rather than solo spots and thoroughly enjoyed each one. Sales have been skimpy, but again that''s secondary because the show has been the thing! I'll post my thoughts on doing live readings here next week.

So that's the update. A lot of sound and fury for possibly scant return - we'll have to see the results of the royalty statement due in October which covers Jan-Jun of this year. But it's been a lot more fun than I'd anticipated. And as I said when I started this, I can have no one else to blame but myself if it doesn't work out. Just so long as I know I gave it my all.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Artistic Values -What Is The Value Of a Writer Today?

Okay I've been doing this self-marketing thing for 9 months now and I'm a little puzzled by the conclusions I'm drawing.

Marketing online is a great way to make contact with readers, but not necessarily a terribly good way to sell to them. (I think it's greater strength lies in a post-purchase service, by which they can come back directly to you and dialogue about the book and their feelings about it which is invaluable).

Why do I say it's a questionable way of selling product? I think because so much literature is available online. A canny reader can surf and trawl and find very good literature for free. The E-Bay hunting trove mentality is very much in evidence. By passing on your book, which they've probably sampled (for free as you've provided it as part of your marketing), it may not be any reflection on your writing, but on your pricing.

Which begs the question, should all literature be free? That the freemium model is the only way to go to maximise the chances of your book being read. After all, you've taken down one of the two major barriers to it being read (the other being visibility, pointing people in its direction).

Two contrary points of view arise from this. Firstly any writer just wants to have their books read don't they? So making them free must enhance the chances of a greater number of readers, as there is no economic impediment to them at least starting your book. But against this is that writers want to be paid for their artistic output. It takes anything from 6 months to years to write a full-length novel, a great investment of the individual and one for which he would hope to be partly reimbursed or rewarded for. The only way a freemium model could allow a smidgeon of recompense, is to have a sort of special edition, print version, maybe with some extras not otherwise available. This can be priced way above the current cost of a print book, as it is more of an artefact or piece of art in how it's to be regarded. Personally, I think this is unrealistic unless you are in the upper echelons of the literati, when your signature is akin to that of an artist's on a canvas. That is what inflates the value of the product. And just a brief note on the freemium model; something that is on offer online for free, tends to put the purchaser in a mindset that it's of no value, and therefore far less likely to buy a physical, priced version of the product. If you've got free tickets to a reading or panel discussion of a book, it's no loss if come the day you don't feel like going; wheres if you've paid for the tickets, you likely to be less disinclined.

But such issues lead to a far wider question to my mind. What value do we place on our creative artists in this early part of the twenty-first century? We being society as a whole. With the market and technology seemingly determining most of the options for distribution and promotion as laid out above, seems like the artist possesses very little value today. We are maybe being reduced to offering a service for providing reading material, rather than producing an artistic work which has some value over and above the cost of printing and distribution as in days of old. Artists are tending towards functionaries and costermongers in the open ended online market, with no special regard by society for being able to reflect it back on itself. In the current economic climate, with so many vital public services being cutback, it is really impossible to argue for any elevation of the arts through subsidy or other protections to be sought from government treasuries.

Am I wrong in seeing this as a decline in the status of artists? With the concomitant loss of creditable status within society, whereby we used to be able to reflect it back to itself? Does anyone still care what writers think? Have writers gleaned this and changed the nature of what they write? Going down populist, non-threatening paths as perceived to be market-friendly and therefore sustainable, of escapist literature such as "Twilight". Are writers unwittingly practising self-censorship as they try and reposition themselves within the market? Have authors lost confidence int their own abilities to wreak some sort of meaningful art, because it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to gain validation via a level of remuneration that acknowledges their worth to society?

If we give it away for free, we may get more readers. But they may not gain or give back any value from the experience. There has to be some sort of premium to any work of art.


Twitter has changed me. Changed the type of writer, the type of creative artist I see myself as. Of course I can't ascribe any blame or agency to Twitter, that I haven't allowed to happen to myself.

Watch a conversation between just 2 people. How their sentences trail off, or veer wildly along a new train of thought. How they cut across one another. How they are punctuated with 'ums' and 'ers' as they gather and compose their thoughts. Twitter is not unlike this, in that the time to type means you are both lagging behind past conversational exchanges and cutting across new ones as they appear. Oh and it's unlikely to be restricted to just two parleyers. But because it demands a rapid response, you often don't have the luxury of time to compose and gather your thoughts. Then the 140 character automatic edit may further distort and deform your meaning. Nuances can be lost in something that comes over as declamatory. Twitter has no time for 'ums' and 'ers'.

Okay, so how has Twitter changed the type of writer I am? Like any writer, I am a magpie always on the lookout for ideas. Anything from daily life may be noted down, filed for later sculpting in fictional form. But it would have been worked on, chewed over, cogitated upon at length. Yet now within the exigencies of Twitter, I have started to react immediately to things. It's certainly changed the way I watch television programmes or sporting events. Now I can be sat there, laptop poised, commenting and critiquing live to the broadcast. In doing so, I can't be giving it quite the same focus as were I just to be watching it untrammeled by any keyboarding? The impulse seems now to just jump in, to react instantly and offer an opinion. How wise is it to unleash unmediated thoughts? It certainly goes against the author's tendency to weigh up and reflect upon his material.

Moreover, just what exactly is that persona of you that exists online and through Twitter? Does it represent 60% of the real you? 75%? 90%? All of you? The latter assumes we can ever even possess full self-knowledge. Whatever the percentage, it is the amount you choose to put out there of yourself. But it is still just a persona. You almost certainly reveal snapshots of the artist you. The workaday you for those who Tweet from the office. The leisure time you as you Tweet from a concert or the pub. But what about the family you? How much do you want to bring in of those nearest and dearest who themselves may have no online presence? Those who are never asked for their consent to be mentioned in your dispatches. Kids and spouses become part of our Twitter routines, if we judge it reflects well on us, or even badly so long as it is in a comic light. I don't know, if you're at a bus stop and a complete stranger gets out their wallet and shows you pictures of their children, is that significantly different from what we Tweeters do? Authors are often quizzed about how much of real people in their lives they put into their books and whether this presents them any problems of conscience. Well you can probably double that with regard to Twitter.

Yet it always fundamentally comes back to the words. The 140 character bite-sized morsels. Those that no matter how directly, may be silently, subliminally imploring Tweeters to go visit your blog, go read your book, to see your words at their full value, given proper breathing space to articulate themselves. And in order to fulfill this dynamic, the demands upon the writer are now to have fresh words as often as possible for consumption. To keep getting people to come visit your blog or view a piece of flash fiction or a poem you've posted. So now I'm writing flash fiction on a weekly basis, when I'd never written one in my life before joining Twitter. If I keep up the pace of one new piece of flash for each week's fridayflash Twitter hashtag community, then that will entail 52,000 words written in the year, irrespective of other new slightly longer pieces I occasionally pen. Plus weekly blog posts and book reviews. In other words, easily the equivalent of a new novel, only I'm not actually engaged on any current work in progress.

I blog opinion pieces and my take on literary theory, usually as guest posts on other blogs. Oh yes, I also review books - it's no longer sufficient just to read books for pleasure, now I feel the compunction to express my views on them publicly. All well and good, but from the noises I've had in regard to all this, I am just as likely to be 'spotted' and possibly offered an invitation to step up to the next level professionally, as a blogger or reviewer rather than as a novelist. None of which I've ever yearned to be or seen as a career path I'd take.

While that may seem churlish, I've never been someone of the opinion that all writing of whatever form has to be a good thing if you see yourself as a writer. This is purely my personal view, I certainly don't hold that it must be so for all writers. For me, I don't want to be a jobbing writer, maybe earning a crust that enables me in my spare time to devote my energies to my fiction. For I am all too aware, that the nature of the beast is such, that to do justice to the necessary professional standards of blog or journalistic writing, entails such an investment of time in its proper craft, it inevitably erodes the mental energy left for one's own work. I'd far rather earn my crust in a completely unrelated field, leaving me the space to create in a whole different mental space.

So I find myself writing more and in smaller chunks. I find myself being far less reflective and leaving my material far less worked on. I find myself possibly betraying confidences from people who have no means of redress. And I find myself writing opinion and review pieces and therefore consuming my own reading material in an entirely different way than from before. An interesting question comes when I finally draw a line under my current marketing campaign for the novel and decide it's time to return to starting a new long project. Will it coexist on Twitter along with me, or will it be written in seclusion from Tweep friends and fellow banterers? I don't yet know the answer to this, but I guess I'll let you know.