An open reply to a self-published author

Posted by Paul Raven @ 17-10-2012 in Writing

Email in my inbox this morning; anonymised and dissected for reply here, because if this is indicative of what’s going on out in the ebook trenches, then we’re gonna need more mustard gas.

Hey, Paul Raven!

Hey.

So what kinds of promotional activities are legal, moral & ethical for the EBook Newbie like myself? I’m asking, because you look like a pro. Maybe you can point me in the right direction.

OK, so if I look like a pro, we’ve unearthed your first problem, which is that you don’t research properly. Pro author? Pro editor? I’m neither. Just a writer, and not even a very successful one yet.

But I can point you in the right direction, I think — that direction is best defined as “diametrically opposite the one you’re currently facing”. Calling yourself an “ebook newbie” (with caps or without) pretty much screams out a warning that you’re trying to run before you can walk. As does asking a lot of in-depth questions about promotion, but not a single one about writing, or a single mention of the presumably a-fucking-mazing ebook you’re trying to flog, here.

(Hence the public reply; usually I delete emails like this, because they’re alarmingly frequent, but yours had enough of an undertone of naivete that I felt you might not be too far gone to save, and that you might serve as a useful exemplar of a particular problem.)

I notice some writers asking for Facebook LIKES, promising to Like-Back-In-Return. Is this OK? I have never tried to LIKE any of my own eBooks on Amazon; afraid I would break some rule and get banned for life. I have LIKED all the books I review, however.

It’s very noble, the Amazon self-pub mutual-backscratch club, and a genuine community. I dare say you could accrue many likes and recommendations and linkbacks and hell knows what else by doing what other marginally more successful (or at least more assertive) self-pubbers suggest you do. Sadly, most of them will be from members of the same community… and speaking for myself, I find members of that community a) easy to spot, and b) well worth avoiding, because all they ever do is promote their own self-pub Kindle pages, or those of people in their network.

Take it from someone who went to boarding school: hanging out in a circlejerk is always an option if you’re low on real friends, but bear in mind that, by default, you will be sitting with wankers and talking about wanking.

Would a large number of LIKES on my Amazon EBook Page make my sales goup?

Maybe.

Are there Facebook rules against the I’ll-Like-You-If-You-Like-Me strategy?

Doubt it.

Why not start a Facebook Group: “The EBook Likers?” Join the group, and you pretty much agree to go around and LIKE all the other Member’s eBooks which are on Amazon. The Power of LIKE! (My guess is that Facebook would shut the group down, but there is no reason the group couldn’t organize off of Facebook; it could be done without even a website, strictly by eMails!) Brings me back to the earlier question: What are the Facebook rules on LIKES? Amazon may have its own rules on reciprocal LIKES.

This is one of the saddest paragraphs I have ever read.

Something like this goes on every day at Twitter. (My background is Twitter – **handle redacted** – it’s where I go to let off steam) The I’ll-star-your-tweets-if-you-star-my-tweets factor. Most tweeps on Twitter rarely, if ever, favorite any tweets at all. But there is an in-bred niche of super-favoriters who go to Favstar to track exactly how many stars and retweets each of their tweets get.

By analyzing the data, it becomes clear that the Favstar Superstars don’t achieve their status with superior content, but with superior networking. Take any Favstar Superstar and examine several of their tweets in detail, and you will find the exact same avatars always at the beginning thirty spots, with just a few odd avatars; the further up the number of stars a tweet gets, the more variety in avatars. But Always The Same Exact Gang At The Start. Favstar defaults to the 50 fav Leaderboard; but there are also 10-fav boards, 30-fav boards, and 100-fav boards. Once a tweet gets on these leaderboards, they glom extra favs from “outsiders” not in a person’s Fave-Back gang. I’m just a bit-part player on Favstar, but I have noticed that if one of my tweets gets more than 10 stars quickly, it ALWAYS gloms several extra stars from avatars I have never seen: usually 3-7. I imagine the 30-fave board gets a 10-15 bump: it explains the variety of avatars I see in the higher numbers when I analyze the Superstars. The 50-fav board seems to be the tipping point. Get to 50 quickly, and you are assured of an avalanche of extra Star-Love from the gazillion extra tweeps who see your tweet when they view the default Favstar Leaderboard. (I have noticed another strategy in operation – Favstar Superstars will delete a tweet if it doesn’t get a lot of stars quickly – so that their Gang-Of-Star-Backers won’t waste their starbacks on a tweet that probably won’t bust into the 50-Leaderboard.)

But that was the very saddest paragraph of all. It’s like watching an earnest young accountant, fresh out of college, trying to work out where all the free money is coming from in the departmental Ponzi scheme he’s just uncovered.

Forgive the digression; but it is in the nature of an analogy. It is an example of how the I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine factor operates within Twitter.

It’s also an example of how completely you’ve missed the point.

So, are Review-Backs a thing? I’ll buy & review your book if you buy & review my book?

I fully expect people trade reviews for free, but I’d be surprised if you can get the reviewers to buy their review copies first.

What about a Facebook Group of authors that review each other’s books? Is this more bad EBook Newbie behavior? Or is this a valid networking strategy to help our eBook pages move a few extra sales? Again, if Facebook is not the place to “host” such a group, it could be done on any website, or again, it could be done in stealth mode, by eMail.

As to whether some sort of public behaviour is appropriate or non-jerky, here’s a handy rule of thumb: if you even have to ask, then it’s probably jerky. Corollary: the legality of a course of action is not the first question you should be asking of it (unless, I suppose, one is a career criminal, which I’m assuming you’re not.)

Hey, I’m asking questions! Cut me some slack! If these behaviors are ”gaming the system” then I will humbly add that many of todays ”Winners” gamed the system to get where they are. I personally believe that if you are going to speed in an automobile, that first there must be no children anywhere near, and second that I don’t want to be the fastest car on the road. I want someone else to be faster, so that they get pulled over instead of me.

Ah, OK – now that’s a genuinely illustrative analogy. What you’re saying is that you’re happy to reap all the benefits of cheating, so long as you can ensure there’s no fall-out or consequences. The good news is that demonstrates you’re not a natural born shit-heel; if you were, you’d just be out there doing it anyway.

The bad news is it demonstrates that you’re in the writing game for the wrongest of reasons.

[As an example of "speeding" I offer this: There are sites which track Twitter Users recent following & follower history. I happened to load up http://twitter.com/Scobleizer one night and the history was interesting. Within a 2 week period he dropped the number of people he was following down to about 20,000 (from something like 90,000). And in the next 2 days, followed about 40,000 more people! The time period was March, April, 2009, something like that. Social Media Whores can't do that anymore on Twitter. Robert's response to this change was to unfollow everyone and continue bitching because he isn't on the Suggested User List.]

I know Scoble’s name and reputation. They’re contributing factors in my ongoing disinterest in his work. Scoble is a tech pundit. You’re trying to be a novelist. This is like a ballet dancer trying to improve by copying a door-to-door salesman.

I don’t know how much LIKES and Reviews even help a purchase, except to give whoever is viewing the eBook page a bit of “trust.” I have found the best predictor of whether I will enjoy an eBook is reading the Free Sample. Screw the reviews, if I like the sample I’m probably going to dig the book.

Amanda Hocking’s success strategy is interesting. She bombarded book bloggers and eBook reviewers and got them working for her! I’ve been wasting the last two decades querying agents and editors about my novels. Should I shift gears and focus on book bloggers & eBook Reviewers? There are online lists of book bloggers and eBook Reviewers. I can bombard them with eMail queries. Hell, with the help of PeekYou and some other services I can get their actual physical snail mail addresses.

Imagine how freaked out they will be when they get my physical promo package!

Yes, that’s the usual effect of an unsolicited package… people can get so uppity, just because you dug their mailing address up out of some service they never even signed up for and sent them something they didn’t want, can’t they?

Any thoughts? Or am I just another irritation?

Hooooo boy.

I’m gonna be totally straight here, my friend. You need to make a decision about what it is you actually want: do you want to be famous, or do you want to be a writer?

Reason I ask is because you’ve sent me close to 500 words here about the mechanics of promoting your self-pubbed books, but you’ve not even mentioned your actual writing so much as once. This means you either consider it worthy of publication already, or that the quality of your work is a secondary consideration to how you promote it.

And I dare say that may be why you’ve been querying for two decades without success.

So I feel safe in saying that if you’re in this because you want to be known, because you want your name in lights, because you want the accolade and glory (and maybe a little bit of income) from Being A Published Author, then it’s time to quit.

Seriously. Two decades of writing and subbing and querying, and these are the best questions you can think of asking another writer? The questions you think will make the difference between fame and obscurity? I can’t begin to explain how badly you’re missing the point here, how much of a rod of misery you’re making for your own back. Quit. Stop wasting your time. Get a new hobby. Develop an alcohol habit, if you don’t have one already. Spend more time with the (grand)kids, I don’t know. Just get the hell away from your computer, if all you can think of doing there is finding ways to corner people into commending your work for any reason other than that they found it and genuinely enjoyed it. Seriously. You’re just adding more noise to the signal, and the signal’s hard enough to tune in on as it is.

Amanda Hocking is, probably quite literally, a one-in-a-million oddity; if you look at the numbers, the odds of visible success as a self-pubbed author are probably just as high as they are for one who followed the old-fashioned agent-editor-publishing-house model. Self-publishing is not a short-cut, not a tradesman’s entrance through which you might slip after being turned away from the front door. Sure, people have made fast money and overnight fame that way. Some of them have even done so with books of staggeringly poor quality. But the odds are spectacularly low, and the field incredibly wide. It’s a crap-shoot; you’ve been at the table twenty years, talking loud and walking proud, with nothing to show for it. Walk away, cash your remaining chips, sit down and enjoy yourself. You’ve played the game, and lost. There’s no shame in having tried and failed. Let it be.

There’s no magic marketing bullet that will make your book sell better. Luck and circumstance might, but if you can influence them, you don’t need my help or anyone else’s.

There’s one thing that might make your book sell better, though — and that’s making it a better book. Or making a new book that’s better than the last, and another one that’s even better than that, and then another and another. And sending them out, whether to agents or editors or straight into the whirlpool of the Kindle store, and letting them speak for themselves, while you wait at home patiently, writing the next one.

I’m no pro writer, my friend, but I’m privileged to know a fair few. And you know what pro writers worry about, ahead and in front of pretty much everything, from marketing and reviews right up to the household finances?

They worry about their writing. How to make it better, stronger, more compelling, more moving. And the worry comes out as work. The response to a book that doesn’t sell is to write another, better book. Rinse and repeat.

Writers write. Everything else is secondary.

So here’s your choice: you can decide that your book hasn’t sold because you haven’t plugged it enough, and as such you can use every channel of desperate huckterdom that the internet provides (and, by heaven, there are dozens more than you’ve yet discovered), you can do anything other than writing more and better in an attempt to shift that product, and you can send more emails like this one hoping for someone to tell you the magic answer to your problem, so long as that answer isn’t “well, you know, maybe your book just wasn’t actually very good?”, and you can spend the rest of your life blaming the unfair world for failing to recognise your genius, despite all the effort you put into telling people that you had it.

Or you can decide that your book hasn’t sold because it’s just not as good as its competition in the market.

And if you make that decision, and respond to it by sighing deeply, perhaps even railing loudly about the dearth of taste and appreciation in the reading public (ideally in the privacy of your office), before sitting down and starting again, then you are a writer.

But if that’s the last thing that you want to do, if you’re all done with the story-telling and ready for the phase where you sit back and let the accolades and glory and self-belief flood in, then it’s time to realize that you don’t want to be a writer; you want to be famous. The latter can follow from the former, but it’s the former that requires a steady input of work.

If you’re not willing to do that work, honestly, it’s time to quit. Writers write, and keep writing. End of story.

Yours sincerely, &c &c.