After I jubilantly signed with an agent I met at last year’s Muse and the Marketplace conference in Boston, well-meaning friends and fellow writers began bombarding me with advice. You need more Facebook followers. You have to be more visible on Twitter. Start a blog. Hurry up, build your platform! My head was spinning. I hadn’t even signed a book deal yet!
I’d always been skeptical of the hype around social media and publishing a novel. Who says it works? Where’s the proof? So I was really intrigued when, at this year’s Muse, I sat down for a session called Four Lies People Will Tell You About Marketing Your Novel. The room was full of overwrought, anxious, nail-biting would-be authors, like me. With a calm, keen sense of someone who knows her sh*t, the presenter, Barbara Ross stood up, looked us in the eyes, and said, “Calm the heck down!”
I was in.
I was so impressed with Barbara’s presentation that I couldn’t wait to share what I’d learned. When I contacted her to ask if she’d share the highlights with Dead Darlings, of course, she said yes.
Barbara is the author of six books in the Maine Clambake Mysteries series. Her work has been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel, and RT Books Reviewer’s Choice Awards, as well as the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She is a former editor at Level Best Books, a graduate of Grub Street’s Launch Lab, and a former COO in education technology.
TP: Lie #1 people tell you about marketing a novel, you say, is this: “You need 500,000 Facebook followers and 10,000 Twitter followers to launch a book successfully.” You say loads of social media followers does not equal a platform. Your platform is your book. So spend your time making it the best book it can be, not on accumulating random followers. Why do you think publishers and authors put so much stock in large numbers of social media followers?
BR: I think some publishers put stock in the number of social media followers because they are countable. And in some circumstances, it makes sense. If they’re publishing a famous chef’s cookbook, then the number of people that chef can easily reach is important. Sometimes that gets over-generalized to every author needing huge numbers of fans and followers. It rarely makes sense for fiction writers. Most people don’t read or buy much fiction in the course of the year, so random followers are pretty useless. Also, with some agents and publishers, “You don’t have enough followers,” became the new, “I didn’t love it enough.” Laura Lippman says not to try to read the runes of your rejections. She’s right.
TP: Lie #2 is: “Write a blog. It will drive traffic to your author website.” In retort, you say, “You don’t need another activity that pays poorly, you’re already a novelist.” Can you talk a bit more about your advice on author blogs?
BR: What I object to about this advice is it’s so glib. Being the kind of blogger (or vlogger or podcaster) who attracts an ever-growing and faithful readership requires enormous skill and dedication. If you’re good enough to do this, especially to the point where you’re making money, maybe you should consider being a blogger who happens to write novels, not the other way around.
TP: Lie #3 is: “Don’t waste time with writers. Focus on readers and potential fans.” To the contrary, you say: The best readers are writers. Can you share some of the data you discovered about who actually buys novels and how often?
BR: Most fiction readers read for entertainment. They read the way I watch TV. The good news is; they are faithful to the authors they love. The bad news is; it’s hard for anyone else to break through. Writers are the kind of readers you need, especially early in your career. Also book bloggers, passionate Goodreads and Amazon discussion board participators, fan and writing conference organizers, librarians, and others who are more than casual readers. For the people I’ve listed, reading fiction is more than a pastime. It’s a serious hobby or even vocation. Therefore they, and the fans and followers they attract by their knowledge and passionate devotion, are more willing to try work by someone new to them, and more willing to let others know about it if they like it. They are the mavens and the connectors, in the classic Tipping Point sense of those words.
Here are the statistics I presented about reading:
76% of American adults say they read at least one book a year
43% of adults read at least one work of literature in the previous year
43% of adults read at least one work of literature in the previous year
Among American adults:
average (mean) number of books read or listened to = 12
the median (or midpoint) is 5
less than 1-in-5 adults is a regular book buyer
TP: Lie #4 goes something like this, “If you get 50 Amazon reviews for your novel, something magic will happen, meaning your sales will soar.” Your retort: “You can only outrun the intrinsic appeal of your book to your target audience and the distribution capabilities of your publisher by 10% to 15%.” During your talk, you said you made up these percentages, but what do you base your hunch on.
BR: I did make up those percentages, but they came after many years of conversations with all kinds of fiction authors, from people who’d made huge investments of money in things like PR agencies and book trailers, and people who’d made huge investments of time promoting their work. And what I’ve found in these conversations is that what the author does can move the needle, but only so much.
I guess what bothers me the most is that I’ve seen so many authors suffer from fear and shame that they didn’t do enough, or guilt that they aren’t doing enough right now. And it makes me crazy when a publisher “blames the victim” and scolds the author for not successfully promoting their work. If your publisher has lousy bookstore distribution or doesn’t understand digital pricing or promotion or picks another book from their catalog to put all their oomph behind, there is only so much you can do. Give yourself a break. You are probably better off spending your time writing another book.
TP: Your Clambake Series has a large following, and you’ve just been renewed to write books 7 through 9 in the series. Congrats! What have been the most efficient tactics you’ve used to build your loyal fan base?
BR: I’m not sure I’ve done any of it efficiently. Part of what you need to ask yourself is what you can do, uniquely, as the author. I believe what you can do uniquely is live in the world of the fans of your type of book. Your publisher and their publicists can’t do it, because with very few exceptions, they publish a wide range of books that appeal to many different audiences. But it should be easy for you, because, unless something is terribly wrong, you are writing the kind of book you love to read. Therefore, hanging out, either virtually or in real life, with people who love these books should be a pleasure. By hanging out with them, you’ll learn how that particular little world works, and how people learn about new authors and books. But most important, you’ll make friends, and everything will flow from there.
Once you are published and do have fans, make sure they can find you and you can find them. That’s what your website and social media are for. They are lousy for author discovery, but they are wonderful for keeping in touch and turning readers into devoted fans. Make sure you have a mailing list sign up on your website from day one, that you have profiles on Amazon and Goodreads, and that you check in and stay in touch. Finding readers is a bear, especially if you don’t know where to look. It’s like cold-calling in a sales job–and about as productive. But staying in touch with fans is pure pleasure.
All that being said, I do participate in two group blogs, the Wicked Cozy Authors and the Maine Crime Writers. These have been tremendously rewarding experiences. The umbrella brand we’ve created for both blogs is known among writers, readers, booksellers, and librarians in our target markets, and both blogs have created many opportunities. The personal support we provide one another behind the scenes is even more important. But neither one drives an appreciable amount of traffic to my website. Which is not the point of a website, either, but that’s another story for another day!