Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Dry County

Okay, so the gold rush is over (brief summary: the twitter/social media-based marketing strategy that seems to be current among authors is based on a situation - widespread interest in the Kindle among tech geeks/early adopters - which has passed on). That means all those of us whose first taste of trying to get a book to sell has been during the ebook gold rush have to figure out new tactics.

So, how do we get our books to sell? Well, one thing that should go without saying is that the product has to be competitive; your book has to not only be great, but also look great and have great marketing copy. If your blurb and cover aren't up to scratch, go away and come back when they are.

Done? Is your book also great? Absolutely as good as you can make it? Great. Go check, and come back again (I'm not being smug. Seriously, check again. I've already made the mistake of checking one time too few, and you don't want to go there).

Right, let's get started on marketing ideas, then. Here (admittedly not terribly well-presented) are some very interesting statistics. (Disclaimer: what follows is a pretty crude statistical analysis. I make no claim to expertise in the field of statistics and my technique probably has flaws, but I believe the general points stand and make sense.)

I identified 9 of those tables as both relevant and fairly clear in terms of the information they give about how readers choose the books they buy (the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 8th, 9th, 12th, 14th, 15th and 17th, and I apologise for not having a better way of presenting the information efficiently). Look at the top 3 entries in each table and there are some obvious patterns;

'Recommendations' feature in 8 of the 9 top threes, primarily in terms of recommendations from friends and family. 'Author' or 'Author reputation' feature in six of nine. This, I suspect, is no surprise to anyone.

It's also bad news for authors at the beginning of their careers (and has always been). I don't think it's unreasonable to say, based on those statistics, that the biggest motivators for readers buying books are personal recommendations and author reputation - in essence, word of mouth. But you can't get a good word of mouth going without some people reading your book.

So, how do you get a good word of mouth going? Since we've already established that your book is as good as you can make it, and the top two options are out, let's look at the next two.

Again, it's probably no surprise that reviews are in the third-most top threes, with four slots total. The subject of getting reviews (more importantly, getting reviews that count) is not one that I'm really qualified to speak on, though being a philosopher, I do have some thoughts on the matter ;D Suffice it to say for now that the most powerful review fora aren't going to be interested in you without some serious marketing muscle behind you.

At number four on our... what do we call this thing? A meta-chart? Anyway, at number four I've gathered a few slightly different terms under the heading of 'in-store discovery' (3 out of 9 top threes), by which I mean readers finding your book in a shop, either virtual or brick-and-mortar, and being intrigued enough by the cover, or blurb, or reading a few pages to buy it.

And I think that's your best bet. Specifically, if you're a debut author with no celebrity status or other serious marketing clout, your best starting point is getting your book in front of readers in the course of their ordinary book-buying processes. Get it out somewhere where all that work crafting cover, blurb and book (because sampling is important too) can really count.

What does that mean for a digitally self-published author? It means figure out how Amazon's ranking systems work. Figure out how to use their categories and tagging systems (and then tell me, please?). Reviews are important, too, but even they don't count for anything unless they get seen (and the key place for them to be seen is on the page where the 'buy' button for your book is - the fewer steps a reader has to take from review to store, the less chance they have to get cold feet or distracted).

Bloody Humans!

And, since bashing twitter marketing last time out gave me by far my most popular blog post ever, here's more of the same, in the shape of an argument that you can't use twitter to get your own word-of-mouth buzz started. Oh, sure, Twitter can help you find reviewers and oodles of great information about writing and marketing, but there's a reason 'pestering by self-interested strangers on Twitter' didn't feature on our meta-chart.

The reason is that it's very hard to persuade human beings of or to do anything very much when they aren't already interested to start with. Let me start with some anecdotal evidence; I've been studying philosophy, one way or another, for almost eight years now (seriously, don't do a PhD. Run while you still can). It's a subject all about argument and, theoretically, persuasion. Every measure available to me suggests I'm pretty good at philosophy (graduated with a first, took my MA with distinction, and I'll stop before this turns into bragging).

In eight years, other philosophers have persuaded me to change my views perhaps half a dozen times. I have persuaded other people to change their views on something, by direct argument, maybe the same number of times. My strike rate is no better for persuading friends to try this or that book or film or game when doing so went against some pre-existing preference or prejudice.

In fact, the harder I try to persuade people that, for example, Transport Tycoon is the greatest videogame ever made (totally true shut up), the more convinced they seem to get that they don't want to try it. You've probably noticed the same happening if you've ever been that guy (let's call him Dave) who won't shut up about this amazing new thing he's found; and if you've ever been on the receiving end of Dave's ravings, I'm guessing you got more and more determined to resist as he got more and more annoying.

I'm not claiming to be any different. I respond to all recommendations that I try books I don't like the look of with a grudging 'I dunno, maybe', and only get irritated if you Dave something at me. The best way to get me to try something I've got a preconceived idea of is to sort of leave it lying around for a few weeks in a room where I'm likely to spend a lot of time.

Right, that's enough talking about me (if there is such a thing ;D). The phenomenon is called entrenchment, and it's the same whether you're trying to persuade me to try Skyrim (seriously, world, enough about Skyrim), or convert someone to your religion or political views. It's not my place to speculate on why entrenchment happens, though there are obvious ideological self-defense implications which may have some evolutionary rationale, but it definitely happens.

Let's relate that back to the business of trying to get someone to buy your book by tweeting at them. Let's assume we're talking about trying to persuade the kind of savvy, modern, in-touch consumer who frequents Twitter. This is someone, then, who's aware of self-publishing and probably of the stigma (both deserved and not) around it. Even if they're open-minded enough to have tried some self-published books, odds are they've hit at least one that was sub-standard.

So, they've got some basis for doubt. They're also not necessarily looking for book recommendations right this minute. They probably aren't wild keen to hear from you. If you press them, there's a good chance they're going to get irritated. Entrenchment follows, and you don't sell them a book.

Now, not everybody is going to entrench every time. Some people will be looking for book recommendations. But because entrenchment is such common behaviour, your success rate is going to be low, and you're going to irritate a lot of people you could just as easily have made allies of. Maybe as allies they still aren't going to read your book, but they might mention you to someone who will. They might be able to offer you some other benefit; beta reading or other advice, for example.

The gains aren't worth the cost. This, by the way, is why the practice of sending automatic direct messages to your new followers with a link to your book MUST STOP NOW. If ever there was a guaranteed trigger for entrenchment, it's being pestered in your own inbox by strangers out for their own profit.

I think that's a good note on which to stop. Can anybody link me to any good resources on Amazon's ranking and categorisation systems? What I'm interested in is how to get virtual shelf-space for your book.

Thanks for reading!

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