Let's talk about marketing, shall we?
It's 2012. I'm sitting at a table in the front of the room, a microphone poised to capture my every word. At this local writing conference, I am considered a rock star. Everyone in the audience wants what I have--a three-book contract with a traditional publishing company. Their eyes are hungry, their pens poised over notebooks. We take a question from the crowd.
"How do I build a platform and make money with my blog?" a woman asks.
"Build a time machine and go back to 2005 and start your blog then," I say.
Because it's the truth. In this oversaturated market, the only ways to build a following and profit from it are to have been around for 5-10 years already or to already be famous. The woman sits down, unhappy with my answer. But no one else on the panel has a better one. Because there is no easy answer, no secret to building a following.
It scares me, too.
From the very beginning of my writing career, I've been told that publishers want a writer to have a brand, a platform, a blog, a built-in army of fans. But that was 2009, and now it's 2015, and that doesn't work anymore. Book blogs become paid services, giveaways become chum pits, conference-goers dump purses full of business cards out in the trash to make room for more free books that they won't read. It is virtually impossible to get your blog seen or your book discovered. We are glutted with information, and yet our answer to "How do I get people to buy my book?" is social media marketing, which is basically throwing more information out into the void.
1. Because Twitter doesn't sell books.
It is a sad fact that if every one of my Twitter followers--which is 9,631, as of this post-- bought my next book, HIT would hit the New York Times bestseller list. BOOM. Easy. One success like that helps an author with every stage of their career, raising their advances, giving them more bargaining power, and lending them a sort of street cred that even my grouchy Luddite grandfather understands and respects. Looking at my sales numbers, my followers are not following me for the purpose of buying my next book, and that's totally okay. They're probably there for my brownie recipes and #badscarystories. But the point is that whatever a publisher sees when checking my Klout score doesn't necessarily translate into book sales. Whatever form of alchemy causes a person to click BUY IT NOW runs deeper than simply hearing the message every two hours as if the author is an insane cuckoo clock.
2. Because Facebook hides posts for blackmail purposes.
Back in 2007, Facebook was beautiful in its simplicity. You posted something to your personal page or your Fan/Author/Brand page, and everyone who was your Friend or Follower saw it. Since then, however, Facebook has recognized the error of allowing us to speak to our friends for free, and now, of my 1836 Fans, only 3-10% see any given post on the Author page that they have chosen to follow for the express purpose of reading my posts. If I pay $20, I could bump that number up to 30%. I would have better luck randomly mailing postcards to strangers. No matter what I say or how beautifully I say it, my message doesn't reach the people who have asked to hear it.
3. Because people aren't on Instagram to find new books.
I got on Instagram hoping to reach people who prefer beautiful images. As an artist, I love setting up shots, tweaking the exposure, and using filters. But let's be honest. Seeing a beautiful photo of my book sitting on my orange sweater beside a Pop-Tart isn't going to make you go buy that book. Even if you judge a book by its cover, Instagram isn't how people shop for great reads. I get more <3's when I take pictures of Earl the donkey rubbing his adorable nose on my butt, but I haven't yet figured out how to monetize that.
4. Because tumblr is not a spectator sport.
I tumbl. I love tumbling. But at 37, I'm practically a corpse over there. I'm not so much part of a vibrant, changing, sharing community as I'm on the sidelines, occasionally curating and adding value but never wanting to be pushy or intrude on the young adult readers I hope to one day call fans. To be honest, inserting myself into convos on tumblr makes me feel like Matthew McConnaughy in Dazed and Confused, when he was the skeever hitting on high school girls. I don't need to be following or addressing teens, but I do want to be around if they're looking for me. In a non-creepy way. That mostly involves retumbling my Instagram pics.
5. Because book reviews are not a place for the author.
I firmly, 100% believe that anyone has a right to express their feelings about my books in any way that they want, and that's one of many reasons why I've removed myself from the realm of reviews. Reading bad reviews makes me feel horrible, and reading good reviews makes me feel creepy and embarrassed. I'm too shy to reach out and ask someone to read or review my book, and approaching book bloggers online out of nowhere feels awkward. Nothing makes me as happy as learning that someone liked one of my books, but I can't go looking for that information. I turned off my Google Alerts forever after a Goodreads review made me uglycry.
6. Because I hate newsletters and hashtag parties too much to inflict them on anyone else.
Seriously. I get so many of these invites from strangers and promoters and people who met me once at a con and now want me to retweet them every hour, and I can't. Y'all, I just can't. I can't go to your book launch party in California. I can't spend an hour when I could be writing just popping in to a virtual party to ask questions and give away $20 worth of my books to your followers. I don't want to do anything "virtual" that involves ending every post with a hashtag. I have never signed up for a newsletter, so why do I get so many of them? And when I unsubscribe, why do they keep on showing up? Do not even get me started on people who add me to Facebook groups without asking. I will see you in hell.
Are you seeing the thread here?
Social media is PUSHING.
And today's reader doesn't buy things because the author pushed them.
As a reader, I want a book to pull me.
When I see a book's name pop up again and again among people I trust, I want to read it.
When the cover is beautiful and the hook is compelling, I want to read it.
When I meet the author and they are gracious and kind and insightful, I want to read it.
When I listen in on a panel and like what I hear, I want to read it.
When I chat with someone on Twitter, and they make me laugh and add value to my life, I start to think that their book might add value, too.
None of those things are pushy.
None of them happen *to* me, uninvited.
I don't want to be the object that is acted upon. I want to be the subject that makes a conscious decision, that feels a twinge of curiosity and discovers something amazing. I want to be the person who acts, not the person who is acted upon. I don't want to be badgered and nagged and wheedled and urged and threatened and cajoled and whined at.
Would fishing be fun if the fish jumped out of the ocean and smacked you in the face?
And that's what a lot of social media by authors is starting to look like, to feel like: being smacked in the face, repeatedly, by hundreds of fish. Being pushed. Being assaulted and yelled at and chased. Being manipulated and prodded and possibly tricked.
That's not how you earn readers and friends. Literature is not a #teamfollowback sport.
Books and social media are both about making a genuine connection.
So if you're a writer who worries as much as I do about online marketing, the best advice I can give you is to chill out and write the next book. To focus your energy on the one thing that's in your control: writing the best book you possibly can. Focus on editing each sentence to make it sing. Focus on helping your publisher craft a great hook and fabulous cover copy.
Spend your energy and time being kind to your colleagues, thanking your publishing team, and making new friends with no expectation that you will eventually use them to claw your way to the top. Before you Friend another writer on Facebook, make sure it's because you legitimately want to know them better and be part of their life and not because you're planning on sending them an Event invitation or a link to your book. If they're smart enough to write a great book, they're smart enough to see through that ploy.
Because here's the secret: None of us know what we're doing, but we're all trying our asses off. We are all hungry.
I went to a panel on How to Write a Bestseller at the RWA conference and asked the two speakers what was the number one contributor to their making the jump from midlist to bestseller, and they both looked very uncomfortable and said, "We just kept on writing." They couldn't point to a single marketing-related action. They sure as hell didn't say, "We sent a lot of auto-DMs on Twitter with our book links in them."
The recipe seems to be GREAT BOOK + HARD WORK + TIME + LUCK.
And the writer can only control three of those things.
I have a book out tomorrow, and I feel like I've done everything in my power to get the word out. And I also feel like what I've done is not enough. And I can't imagine what amount of publicity or work would *ever* feel like enough. There is no road map to success here. Most of the authors seeing the results I would like have either been writing for 20 years, have publishers dead-set on a bestseller and paying mad bank to help it happen, or wrote a book better than what I believe I'm capable of writing, and all I can do is keep trying to level up. One more tweet from me is not going to get HIT on the airport bookseller shelves, and it might just lose a few followers who are sick to death of that teal and blood-spattered cover.
There's a fine line between informative and annoying, assertive and aggressive.
So let's all stop shouting in a crowd and start having the kind of smaller conversations that actually help us connect as human beings.
Let's write better books.
Also, BUY MY BOOK.
***Edited to add: If you're currently grinding your teeth at me, check out my own rebuttal: WAIT, KEEP TALKING: Author Self-Promotion That Actually Works. Because I don't actually want you to shut up.***