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Posted by Kate, July 31, 2012

Social media: does it work? A guest post on self-publishing and social media marketing by children’s author M G Harris

Social media: does it work?

Does it mean we can all be publishers now?

Or does it mean the complete opposite?

What are we to make of the vertiginous new environment of publishing? It’s difficult enough to analyse the impact of change when it happens one factor at a time. When you’ve got change on almost every possible level – technology, platform, market, producers, suppliers – it begins to resemble a biological system. And as a former biochemist I can tell you: natural systems are hideously difficult to understand or predict.

Let’s take a relatively simple hypothesis: the increased importance of social media will mean that publishers need no longer spend any time or money on offline or print marketing.

Ewan Morrison’s recent article in The Guardian rather calls time on the importance of offline promotion for publishing via this quotation:

“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’.”

It’s not quite the message you hear elsewhere, which is that online promotion is at least an order of magnitude less effective than offline.

But ultimately these are comparisons between apples and oranges. Both methodologies can be effective. A poorly executed offline campaign may appear to result in fewer sales than a brilliantly executed online campaign. And anyway, who is tracking the sales? And how?

As LouieStowell tweeted me: “My issue is how to get stats about buying behaviour…”

Earlier this year I had a go at self-publishing. My series of thrillers for teens, The Joshua Files (originally commissioned for Scholastic Children’s Books UK when Kate Wilson was Group M.D. there), had come to a conclusion. But one story remained untold: the unpublished manuscript which gave me the idea for the entire series. It was a hard-sciencey technothriller for a different market – not one my publisher sells into. So I asked a former Joshua Files editor to work on it with me, hired a young designer (Gareth Stranks) and published The Descendant. As much as anything, I wanted the chance to have some actual sales and marketing data, even if it was from just one project. On my blog, I described our entire publishing process and have started sharing the results.

With that experience behind me, I found Morrison’s article struck many familiar chords.

At first reading, I’d agree that social media doesn’t work for self-epublishers anymore. In fact most of the online initiatives we tried for The Descendant didn’t do much. The book only began to move once we did an Amazon free promotion. Since then it is usually in the top 20,000, often in the top 10,000, and perhaps tellingly, has been my best-selling book on Amazon since then (about 6 weeks ago).

You could draw the simplistic conclusion that NOTHING worked expect the giveaway.

However, the answer is more complex. The giveaway was definitely successful because of the widespread retweeting of my (annoyingly?) frequent tweets about the promotion. For which, heartfelt thanks to about a dozen fellow authors and readers.

So giving ebooks away can work – but you’ll probably rely on social media to make it happen.

In addition, before we did the giveaway we prepared the landscape. There was a website, a video trailer, an Alternate Reality Game (it pre-existed publication, having been used to promote The Joshua Files), a handful of five-star reviews on Amazon. Individually, none of these factors led to any kind of spike in sales. Collectively however, it would be tough to deny that they had a positive influence.

From my sample of one project, the evidence suggests that social media DID help. But as a final layer on top of a LOT of basic marketing groundwork.

However, so far I’ve sold only about 600 books – almost all in the week following the giveaway. It’s going to take a lot more to cover the cost of publication. Compared to the majority of self-published “unknown” authors, I have a strong platform. If sales continue at the current rate I’ll break even in about six months. And it ain’t a living.

So… does that mean that Ewan Morrison is right?

Sam Missingham (samatlounge) tweeted: “Quite irritated by MrEwanMorrison piece … don’t get why crap social media results = end of self pub bubble.”

My own impression is that his conclusions drawn are understandable. For any individual author entering into the arena, having a less-than-stellar experience. self-publishing looks like a bubble. You try it once, it doesn’t work, you leave well alone and return to your day job or go back to a traditional publisher.

Bubble popped?

No. If business worked that way then here are a bunch of business activities that would have dried up long ago.

1. Multi-level marketing. Hello AMWAY! Hands up if you have a friend who forked out a grand or so on a bunch of garbage to sell to neighbours… Granted, it isn’t as profitable as it used to be but somewhere, even now, there will be a seminar on how to make a million selling household cleaning devices and persuading your friends to do the same.

2. Business coaching. If these seminars by people like Tony Robbins etc were as transformative as they purport to be, all their alumni would now be rich/happy/fit. Mainly, they aren’t. Yet the word hasn’t got out. The ‘coaching bubble’ has yet to burst.

3. Crime. A fair proportion of criminals end up in jail. Many of them re-offend. Why doesn’t the ‘crime bubble’ burst?

4. Publishing! Guess how many new authors are as successful as JK Rowling? (none) Guess how much this puts them off writing? (hardly at all) Why doesn’t the ‘publishing bubble’ burst?

The world is full of optimists, people willing to try something new, hoping for the best. When ‘the best’ isn’t the outcome, what do they do? Well they generally don’t boast about it. They go away, or quietly adjust to whatever level of success they’ve achieved.

But when someone hits the jackpot, everybody hears about it.

New technology platforms have made it technically possible for self-publishers to get their words out. But marketing still takes money and connections. Publishers have them and most self-publishers don’t. In fact, far from competing with traditional publishers, self-publishers are helping them! Would E.L. James have made so many millions without the muscle of trade publishing, distribution and a forceful publicity machine? No. Yet neither would the publisher have been in anything like such a strong position to pump up the platform had one not already existed.

The self-publishing bubble won’t burst, because it is founded on three strong pillars: money (for Amazon et al); opportunity for money (traditional publishers just found a terrific new way to spot talent); and hope.

The most important of these is hope. Hope is what drives people. Things have to get very bad before you kill hope. The consequences of failure need to be terrifying before people won’t risk a punt. And one punt is all that Amazon et al need.

One punt, per person. You know, the new ‘sucker’ that PT Barnum claims ‘is born every minute’.

I might even try twice; I’m that much of an optimist.