Friday, January 25, 2013

Achieving Stardom

As you’ve heard me say before in this blog, marketing is tough. Of all the elements that an indie-published writer has to take on—editing, typesetting, cover design, website design, blogging—marketing and promotion seem to be the two least suited to the personality of people who happily spend years of their lives chronicling the lives of fictional people while real people clamor for their attention.

Nor does the marketing problem affect only indie-published writers. Small presses have small budgets, little of which goes to promotion. Even big presses prefer to spend their dollars where they can expect the greatest returns: the few stars get book tours and television spots; the mid-list and niche authors don’t.

So marketing is tough. It takes grit and perseverance and creativity, a thick skin and an agile mind, a willingness to tackle new approaches and endure a certain amount of discomfort. Most of all, it takes patience, which assumes trust in the value of one’s work and confidence that sooner or later a book’s readers will find it. But that is precisely where many authors stumble. In their fear that they won’t make sales right away, desperate authors alienate the very people they most need to impress: their readers.

I see it on Goodreads all the time. No matter how often group moderators and site operators post the rules of engagement, certain writers leap into a new group and begin posting some version of “buy my book!” in a dozen different threads, as if the other group members were sales on the hoof. What usually happens is that the moderators label them spammers and exile them. By pushing sales first and foremost, these writers end up making none.

Let me hasten to add that not all Goodreads writers pester other group members, by any means. But enough of them do that in one group I joined, another member went out of her way to comment on how nice it was to interact with a writer who had not tried to flog her book to the group. Which, when you think about it, is a sad situation—not just for the readers constantly dodging hungry authors, but for the authors who deny themselves the pleasure of conversation in the belief that sales are the only measure of their success.

Still, the situation on Goodreads is mild compared to what happens in other online venues—not least because the site operators and the group moderators act as enforcers and delete authors who refuse to get the point. Meanwhile, the manipulation of social networks and online review systems proceeds apace. At the heart of the whole mess is the belief, true or false, that search algorithms determine a book’s visibility and therefore the author’s sales.

The undermining of the review system is not new. Stories have surfaced for some time about people gaming the system. At the thin end of the wedge, these schemes involve “sock puppets,” close relatives and friends whom the writer asks to submit a glowing review. So long as the person genuinely enjoyed the book, I don’t have a big problem with sock puppets. Non-writers often see automated requests for reviews as an annoyance, so pointing out that they can improve a book’s sales seems like a violation only if you threaten to block Aunt Mary from Thanksgiving dinner if she gives you less than five stars. After all, asking people to review a book honestly, including sending them a free copy for that purpose, is standard practice in publishing.

But the attacks on the review system go far beyond sock puppets. A few months ago, it came out that people had been buying or otherwise faking five-star reviews (by themselves submitting or encouraging others to submit multiple positive reviews under pseudonyms, say). On Monday, David Streitfeld reported in the New York Times (“Swarming a Book Online”) that a group of fans had used social media to organize a campaign against a book they disliked. The fans overwhelmed the author’s page on with one-star reviews. These fans were readers, but previous incidents have involved writers trashing other authors’ books while praising their own. So far as I know, no author has yet organized an online campaign to take down a competitor, but it’s not hard to imagine that day arriving.

I hope it never does. Because manipulating the system diminishes the importance of all reviews, both good and bad. Most readers have more options than time. If authors, in a desperate desire to ramp up their own sales at any cost, teach readers that reviews are unreliable, no one benefits. Honest writers lose, because their five-star reviews look fake. Unfairly targeted writers lose, because their books die unread. But the desperate writers lose, too, just as they lose when they spam readers’ groups on Goodreads. A reader who buys a book because of a lie will not buy another book from that author, ever. So faking reviews is not even good marketing strategy.

Marketing is tough. Building a readership takes time. No need to make the process tougher for everyone by spamming or lying.

In a bizarre coincidence, Krista Tippett—whose On Being show I dearly love, listen to weekly, and often download to keep for future use—addressed this very topic two days after I uploaded this post in her  interview with the Internet pioneer Seth Godin. To listen to or download the interview and to find out more about Seth, see On the Art of Noticing, and Then Creating. For more on having faith in your own work, see next week’s post, which in a nod to the original title of Krista’s show, I have titled “Speaking of Faith.
Image purchased from, no. 19859517.

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