In the third in a series of essays on digital media and publishing, Ewan Morrison, who will appear at the Edinburgh World Writers' Conference, claims that as the project to monetise social media falters the self-epublishing industry's defects will be laid bare
"Authors – become a success through building an 'internet platform'!". For almost five years we've been subjected to the same message. At the London College of Communication's iGeneration conference this year, I heard that social media was now the only way to sell books, and witnessed glowing examples of the successful use of SM from epub authors such as Joanna Penn (who has her own consultancy and sells $99 multimedia courses on How to Write A Novel). At the Hay festival last month, I heard Scott Pack – self-described "blogger, publisher and author of moderately successful toilet books" – declare that mainstream media, papers and TV "no longer function in selling books"; that the net is now the only way for authors to – you've heard it before – "build a platform". Already every fourth tweet I receive is from an "indie" author trying to self-promote, saying things like "Hoping for a cheeky RT of my last tweet on my book & the 99p offer. B v grateful." And another – "Hope all is well! My dad just published his latest book on Amazon – if possible, I was wondering if you had any tips for him getting his book reviewed by any relevant bloggers. Appreciate any insight." And then there are the hundreds of tweets from social media ebook consultants and so-called specialists offering "the key to online marketing success".
I'm convinced that epublishing is another tech bubble, and that it will burst within the next 18 months. The reason is this: epublishing is inextricably tied to the structures of social media marketing and the myth that social media functions as a way of selling products. It doesn't, and we're just starting to get the true stats on that. When social media marketing collapses it will destroy the platform that the dream of a self-epublishing industry was based upon.
First, though, I conducted my own experiment. I decided to take these "platformers" at their word and seriously consider the possibility of self-promoting my books online (I even bought an iPhone so that I could get with the revolution). I am not alone in this: authors who have contracts with the big six publishers are now being asked, or obliged, to "get out there" and self-promote; something that 10 years ago would have been seen as selling-out is fast becoming the norm.
What follows is what I discovered about self-promotion in the digital utopia of social media marketing.
The 20% author and the fine art of self-promotion
As Joanna Penn says: "In a world with lots of talent, success requires more than simply being great." She advocates, "more effective networking, of course!" Self-styled eSpecialists such as Penn often invoke the 80/20 rule which advises that, as a sales person (in this case an author), you should spend 20% of your time writing and 80% of your time networking through social media. In tune with this, self-epublishing author Louise Voss recently informed me that the success of her ebooks came about as a result of spending about 80% of her time marketing (her writing partner also had a marketing background).
And if that seems like a limitation on your creative time, consider the case of San Diego-based "book publicity and promotions expert" Paula Margulies, who is taking the 80/20 rule even further. She claims that when tweeting and Facebooking you should spend "80% of your time posting about things other than your book, and 20% selling. That's right – 80% of what you post should not be a sales pitch." Why does she recommend this? "Because readers are human beings, who long to make connections with others ... They join social networking sites not to receive non-stop reminders to buy, but to develop relationships." Margulies advocates that authors blog and tweet about hobbies and personal activities: things you like, and which you think will draw other people to you. Essentially, 80% of your tweeting should be about cats, food, sport, what's happening outside your window – all the things that millions of non-writers tweet about. This theory is backed up by many other self-appointed social media specialists.
Let's look at the stats. If we take Margulies and Penn seriously, how much time does this leave for actually writing? Most self-epublished authors hold down a day job, so let's give them three hours a day, after work, for author activities. That's 1,095 hours a year. Reduce this to 20% (since you have to spend 80% of your time covertly self-promoting online), and you get 219 writing hours a year, which works out as 18 12-hour days to write a book.
Which could be fine – let's face it, Amanda Hocking famously wrote one of her bestselling ebooks in only three weeks. But then again, Hocking has recently given up on self-promotion and self-epublishing to go with a mainstream publisher. "I want to be a writer," she explained. "I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling emails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full-time corporation."
So, maybe tweeting is too time-consuming. Let's leave aside the question of whether Twitter and Facebook can actually help you sell anything and overlook the fact that only 10% of tweets ever get retweeted, and remain positive, believe in ourselves and move on. Let's get some professional help in creating that platform. Here's what can be done.
1. Hire a company to teach you how to tweet better
It's possible that the reason you're not seeing a big rise in book sales online is because you're not tweeting properly. There are plenty of sites with online tips from those who claim they hold the "key secrets to going viral". There are even those who claim that learning how to use Twitter makes you a superior writer.
If you want to learn their methods, you can attend one of the hundreds of new courses that have sprung up, and pay hundreds of pounds to master your 140 characters. Or ...
2. Hire a company to generate your tweets for you
If you're still failing and are daunted at how much effort it takes to spend 80% of 80% of your time being chatty, you can hire a company to do it for you. Book Tweeting Service's website claims: "We tweet your book, blog or author website to 60,000+ readers, editors, publishers and writers who are following us on our Twitter accounts. We will send 5 TWEETS PER DAY which we then share with our 5 Twitter accounts (=30 tweets) to get you maximum exposure." Book Tweeting Service will write your tweets for you. Its tweet plans start with a one-day plan at $29 (£18).
While this frees time to actually write, the downside is that your tweets may not come across as particularly "you", which might alienate any followers you already had. And, of course, you'll be paying almost £10,000 for a year's worth of tweets. But as these companies say, "Online marketing is a full-time job for professionals." And they should know: many of them are, in fact, just good old-fashioned marketing companies who've developed an internet wing in order to get in on the feeding frenzy. Most, however, are sole-trader start-ups – for that, read solitary, self-taught people who have set up a page as a specialist. Many of them are also self-epublishing authors, trying to make a buck so they can buy time to do their 20% of writing.
3. Get family, friends and Facebook friends to post reviews on Amazon
Many self-epublishing authors claim that you can "trigger Amazon's algorithms" and get on to "Amazon recommendations", after you get 30 – or 50 – or 100 favourable reviews. They sometimes say this gleefully, as if it's a trick they've learned and are secretly passing on to you. The idea is that you contact all of your friends on Facebook and get them to post reviews. Although it's a bit crass, and may be dishonest, it's not illegal.
The problem with this is what I term the Facebubble, or what Eli Pariser calls Filter Bubbles. The hard fact is that since Facebook started tracking our behaviour, no matter whether you have 1,000 friends or 100, you're only going to get updates from the two dozen people you've most recently been in touch with. You're not speaking, let alone marketing, to the vast world of the internet at all. You are only a few steps removed from your old school friends and your mum. This problem is compounded when you try to sell books directly on Facebook to your friends. You're in the Facebubble and you're stuck with the 80/20 rule. You're spending 20% of 80% your time trying to market to the two dozen people who will see your feed. So you sell 10 books, and you feel dirty for having given the hard sell to your mates.
So what's wrong? Why aren't you sweeping ahead as a new author in the social media revolution? Maybe you've just come to it too late. If you didn't start doing this when social media began then you're already years behind the pioneers: everyone else and their auntie is now trying these very strategies, precisely because the pioneers are now selling courses and books on how to be as successful as they are (if they're so successful, why do they have to do all this consultancy work?) And, anyway, how can you compete with the 1.1 million new writers who have downloaded their ebooks on to Amazon? Is there any space left for you on this platform? Does the platform even exist, or is it a vast collective delusion?
4. Buy Facebook advertising
Got your Facebook and Twitter pages, multiplied your friends and followers to 1,000 or 5,000, and still haven't managed to sell more books than you would have done standing on a street corner? Try buying Facebook advertising.
These are the little picture squares on the right hand side of the screen, which lead users to a book or author page that can be "liked". On that book page you can post live links where people can buy the book from Amazon, Waterstones or your publisher – alongside reviews, or things of general interest. The theory is that when you build up a big enough "like" base, people will actually start to buy.
How much does it cost? Facebook advertising is on a sliding scale, so the more you spend the more visible they claim they will make you. Based on your targeting options, Facebook suggests a bid of $0.33 per click. Users claim you can get 51,000 clicks for $650. A click, though, is not a "like" - and even a "like" doesn't necessarily lead to anything.
A writer I know has, after two months of buying Facebook ads, gained 490 new "likes", but the number of books he sold through this was only three. This is just one example, of course, but who would you ask to give you honest comprehensive stats? Self-promoting authors? Facebook, whose entire financial survival depends on selling ads?
5. Hire a company to create five-star reviews on Amazon for your book
Things are getting drastic and you've crossed the line already, so why not go illegal and buy fake reviews?
In January someone on Fiverr ("the world's largest marketplace for small services" posted an ad: "I will write two Amazon reviews from two different reviewers, for anything that you send me, ebooks apps…for $5". Elsewhere, one of my publishers was approached recently by a company, which has since mysteriously vanished from the net, offering just such a service – 30 reviews for £100. This is blatantly immoral but becoming widespread. How many five-star reviews does it take to trigger the Amazon algorithms, now that others are getting in on the game? How much are you willing to pay and risk to find out?
6. Give your books away for free
Ultimately, you may find that the only option left available to you is the one that internet gurus and marketers expound in articles such as "Why giving away thousands of free books is a good thing". Again, this is about platforming – developing a readership base of people who will, hopefully, come back and buy the books when you put the prices up. This is the reasoning behind the Amazon top 100 free ebooks lists. This is not, ewriters claim, about ripping authors off, nor about creating a race to the bottom in prices that will ultimately destroy Amazon's competitors in the book market.
But does giving your books away for free work? A test case is another author I know who went on to the Amazon free deal for a day and entered the top 10 Kindle Free Chart. He had 700 downloads within four hours. However, over the next day, when the price had gone back to £4.99, and in the three weeks that followed, the total number of copies sold was zero. He had, somehow, failed to build his platform.
Some authors have even found ways of making money by encouraging other writers to give their books away. Paulo Coelho, the 65-year-old worldwide bestseller and "Twitter mystic", now runs an expensive boot camp for wannabe e-authors, in which he promotes his spiritual philosophy of "self-piracy". However, Coelho fails to mention that he made his millions in mainstream publishing in its heyday, or to explain that he carried his existing fanbase with him on to the net, so he isn't actually a verifiable example of building a net platform. He also seems to have overlooked the likelihood that if he had given his books away over the last 40 years, he would never have been able to build the career that he now enjoys.
The theory goes that if you give your books away for free, one day you'll see a return. But when is that day coming? For those who self-epublish and those who have been downsized by their publishers, it's a question of how long they can keep going before they run out of energy and money; before they lose faith in the effectiveness of this platform that might not be a launchpad for them, but for the net companies that created it.
You've created your platform. Is your ebook flying?
The bad news for social media companies is that after all the hype and the projections, there are stats: there is evidence, there are consequences, and heads will roll. In publishing terms it has recently been revealed that 10% of all self-epublishers make £75% of all the money; that 50% of self-published ebooks make less than $500 a year (£320, or 87p a day); and that 25% doesn't cover the costs of production. Broadly, what this means is that if you went out on the street with a book in your hand and tried to sell it to a stranger for 88p, or 99p, and you did this every day, you would still be making more money than 50% of all self-published authors on Amazon and all the other new epub platforms.
It also turns out that the ebook market now looks a lot like the old mainstream model. A small number of writers make a lot and everyone else wallows in the doldrums of minuscule sales. The only difference is that those at the top are selling 100,000 copies at 99p, not at £4.99, or £8.99 – which in real terms represents a massive shrinkage of the market. Furthermore, it signifies the passage of the publishing industry into the hands of the internet companies that can capitalise on a million small sales by a million small authors.
What can social media do for authors?
From my own research over the last year I've discovered that I have a 4% pick-up from Facebook on invitations to readings – which is actually a 60% fail rate on those who click that they will be attending. In contrast, by email, I have a 40% positive commitment from those who say they will come to my events. People, as the net sellers say, like to be treated like individuals. Mass FB mailouts and invitations are impersonal. As Malcolm Gladwell has been saying during the past few years, the internet is good at forming weak, not strong links. Commitment on the net is shallow. This is the same for events and for purchase of books, and also for reading the content of any post. People click "like" on articles they've never read, befriend people they've no connection with. As Gladwell also says, it's the same for political affiliations. You can click on a cause but you won't turn up for a protest march. These are weak connections.
What can social media marketing actually sell?
A new study by Reuters shows that four out of five Facebook users have never bought a product or service as a result of advertising or comments on the social network site. Facebook can't prove that it can monetise its 900 million-strong base of users, and as a result it has lost 26% of its value since the IPO launch. Facebook is now in court over privacy issues which it is accused of having breached in the attempt to make sponsored story ads. A general sense of distrust over the monetising of Facebook is spreading, with market specialists claiming that "investors are going to start actively avoiding social in their portfolios".
There are also numerous examples of people who have built up immense Twitter followings on the idea that they can then turn this into product sales, only to discover that they can't. A pizza joint in New Orleans hit 70,000 people with its Facebook ad, but through its own market research discovered that they had picked up only one new customer. Also in the US, General Motors pulled its $10m Facebook ads account in May, "after deciding that paid ads on the site have little impact on consumers' car purchases".
Do pizzas and car sales differ from book sales on the social media? To find out we'd have to see some real market research.
Social media marketing is selling ... social media
So where is this research? Why do Facebook and Google endlessly tell us that such information is hard to gather? The truth is, the research has barely been started, and the resistance to doing it is because it would expose that the entire industry is based on pure speculation. A study by Facebook's own marketing company, Pagemodo, found that while 64% of business owners say "social media marketing is a promising tactic and they believe it provides returns", only 25% of all businesses interviewed said they believed they had seen an incremental increase in sales.
In the face of this backlash, Facebook recently responded with a "study" by Comscore (based on stats from Starbucks), which claimed a 38% success rate. But Facebook themselves helped to put the study together (a bit like getting a homeowner to give you an evaluation on his own house), and according to Erik Sherman at INC, Facebook have used a number of tricks to skew the data and the real stats show only a 2.12% increase in actual purchases attributable to their ads.
Social scientist Duncan Watts has been doing research into Twitter cascades. He wants social networks to conduct real research into how messages and images "go viral", but doesn't believe that they will. The outcome of such experiments, he believes would be "to demonstrate how difficult it is for social marketing to have any impact".
This chimes with what net gurus such as Laurence Lessig and Pat Kane have been saying for years. As Kane states: "The internet was created with a mixture of a civic, a countercultural and a state structure. The idea of setting up a business on this structure is a tragic misunderstanding."
But what about the massive growth in ebook sales?
When we hear about the 366% growth in ebook sales, what we're not hearing are the stats on who is making the money and how much. After all, a 366% increase in profits could be a result of those 1.1 million new authors selling only a handful of copies of their own ebooks each. According to a study in Publishing Perspectives, only 70 self-epublished authors in the world in 2011 were selling more than 800 ebooks a month. These stats came from the Kindle Boards – with the provocation "Who is brave enough to post their numbers?" There may be hundreds or thousands more Kindle authors out there who are not reporting their astronomic sales, but given that Kindle authors spend 80% of their time self-promoting, one assumes we'd have heard about them.
So where are the real industry stats, and why does Amazon protect us from them? Or is it protecting itself from the accusation that it is the only winner in an online market intended to skim millions from millions of hopeful new writers, who themselves will only ever see minuscule returns on their investment and effort? All that tweeting and self-promoting was structurally bound to fail from the start.
Tweeting in the Hall of Mirrors v The Return of the 100%
In economic terms, the only thing social media has yet effectively proven to be able to generate is more social media, and media about the future economic promise of social media. What if the idea that social media can sell products was simply what Facebook needed us to believe so it could put itself on the market? Many investors believe this is now the case.
As individuals and companies abandon Facebook advertising, and finally come to realise that Twitter does not increase sales for the vast majority of writers, then the very idea of using social media to sell books will begin to collapse.
In the end it's all about stats: the hidden ones and the real ones. If you're writing and trying to self-sell and net-promote, do your own stats. Calculate your investment of time and money in writing versus social media. Do you want to spend 80% of 80% of your time Facebooking about cats in the hope that you'll make a 2.12% increase in sales on a book you had to write in 18 days? Do you want to spend 80% of your time creating unpaid market propaganda for the social media industry?
Or would you rather step away from the hype altogether and spend as much time as you can being a 100% writer?