You know the scenario well. There you are, walking down the street, minding your own business when you see them. They’re standing there with their clipboards and colored vests. Turning their smiles on everyone and anyone. Not again, you think. It must be the third time this week. Already you don’t care what today’s charity is. Already you’re thinking how you can get out of this.
You look across the street. Damn. There’s two more of them over there. Smart, this lot. They’re working in pairs and they’ve got the whole street covered. There’s no crossing over for you. Now you’re ten paces closer and the crowd is thinning in front of you. You’re running out of time. Look at your feet. That’s it. Don’t make eye contact. Pretend like you’re deep in thought about something. No, better still, fake a call on your cell phone. Surely they won’t interrupt someone talking on their cell. But you’re closer now, and your phone isn’t ringing and you can’t do it without being spotted for a fraud.
“Hello,” s/he says, beaming at you. “How are you today?” Oh, that’s done it. Now you’re engaged. You can’t ignore them without coming across as intolerably rude.
“Do you have a minute for (insert cause here)?”
You’re shaking your head before they’ve even finished. “No,” you say. “I’m late for work/a train/an appointment.” And even to you, your excuse sounds weak and hollow.
But you made it! You’re through – and you feel guilty.
Because you’re the umpteenth person today to give that volunteer a lame brush-off. Because you really could have spared a minute of your time if you had really wanted to, and because planned parenthood/gay rights/save the whale is a good cause and you probably could have spared them a dollar. You justify it to yourself, of course. Well, there are a million good causes, I can’t give to them all – and there’s a sliver of truth in that. But you probably don’t give to many, if any.
But let’s backtrack for a moment to that sliver of truth. There’s hundreds, if not thousands of charities out there and all of them are vying for your attention and wanting your money. Depending on where you live, seeing volunteers canvassing for money has become so commonplace it’s become tiresome. (Hence the first thought of “How do I get out of this?”) It’s called charity fatigue.
It was thinking about this scenario that started me wondering – could the same thing apply to authors? There are already countless numbers of authors struggling to get their voices heard and, given the changing landscape of publishing, there are going to be countless more. Given that for most of them the marketing of their books – especially self-published books – falls squarely on their own shoulders, many of these individuals stand alone.
The key to success then, appears to be the creation of something called an “Author Brand” or “Author Platform” which consists, roughly, of the following – a website, a blog, a facebook account, a twitter account – in short, a sustained and continual web presence. But if every author is doing it, how does one author get his or her voice heard above the noise? To all intents and purposes, how does one author engage you enough to stop you and have you say, “I’m prepared to part with money for that.” Honestly, if I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t need to be creating my own author brand. 😉
But isn’t it possible that this cacophony of voices; this constant plugging of books could turn the reader in you apathetic? Could the authors lurking on forum boards, surreptitiously promoting their own work(s) every chance they get, give you a case of author fatigue – and if so, how are you then going to find new books and new authors to read? Would you even want to? Chances are, that to find a clear signal among the noise, people will turn to trusted sources.
A recent post by Mark Coker entitled “How ebook buyers discover books” would appear to support this. In his survey, 29% of respondents said they would buy books from online recommendations. Another 18% said they’ll simply buy ebooks from authors they already know. If that’s truly the case, is all the shouting from the rooftops in the name of self-promotion pointless? Are we authors just wasting our collective breath?
“Ah,” you say, “but look at Amanda Hocking. She managed to successfully market her author brand.” For those of you not familiar with Amanda Hocking’s story, let me direct you here, so you can read it in her own words. Then let me say this, from what I can tell from her blog, Miss Hocking is an extremely prolific and/or focused writer. The woman knocks a novel out in a period of days! That means she can generate repeat business extremely quickly and constantly feed a ravenous fan-base. Secondly, she was smart – what Miss Hocking’s success demonstrated was that word-of-mouth has now become word-on-the-net. By utilizing book bloggers and Kindle forum boards, Miss Hocking was able to reach a phenomenal amount of people. (Perhaps the book bloggers and reviewers of tomorrow will be to ebooks what publishers were to hardcopy books – the gatekeepers – the trusted sources for the download generation). As ebook authors are coming to realize, bloggers are their friends and it is through them they will ultimately succeed or fail, but whilst those resources are available to the rest of us there’s certainly a feeling that that route has been traveled and the masses that now follow are just poor relatives walking an already well-trodden path. It’s been done, we missed the boat, and if you do it you’re going to be one of millions of voices occupying the blogosphere, clamoring to be heard. If you really want to make a splash in the ebook world, you had better come up with an innovative new way to reach the masses. Thirdly, Miss Hocking was extremely LUCKY, which is to take nothing away from her hard work and dedication to her craft – but the fact of the matter remains that there had to be a little bit of luck involved. Perhaps that is what the rest of us cling to – “Well if it happened to her, why not me?”
I don’t want to rain on everyone’s parade here but the chance of this kind of success is slim. Which is not to say it won’t happen again – on the contrary, in fact I do believe it will happen again and perhaps with more frequency because as the ebook landscape gets more and more cluttered people will crave recommendations to help them navigate through it. Those recommendations will snowball and gather momentum until they once again reach a tipping point.
But I come back to the charity analogy. When I lived in the UK I supported three charities – Plan International, The Shark Trust and The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. I supported them because I chose to and because their missions aligned roughly with my own interests. I wasn’t coerced into giving to them because I was cold called or canvassed on the street. I sought them out because they interested me. Doesn’t the same apply with books? I can’t remember a single occasion where I bought a book based on a book trailer and I can count on one finger the number of times I’ve bought a book because of a blog. However, I do want to read Mark Chadbourn’s World’s End because I think it has a cool cover (yes, I do judge books by their covers) and I do want to read Robert J. Sawyers Rollback because I think it has an interesting premise.
“Author Brand” is a term that seems to get touted around as if it’s a golden nugget which, if only we could crack it, will send us on our path to untold riches, but as Chuck Wendig correctly points out in his post “Putting the Self-Publishing Cart before the Horse,” what seems to get regularly overlooked is the question of quality. You can invest as much energy as you like into creating your Author Brand but if you don’t have a quality product it will all be for nothing. I can’t speak for the quality of Miss Hocking’s work, I haven’t read any of her stuff, but I can only assume she writes good stories – and by that I don’t just mean editorially good, I mean she writes stories that people want to read and that they enjoy.
Perhaps the answer doesn’t lie in blanketing the internet with our presence (although it can’t hurt). Perhaps the answer lies in just writing a good book, trusting that the people who like what you write will seek you out, and hoping, just hoping, that the rest falls in to place.
Stuart Clark is the author of the Project U.L.F. series of sci-fi adventure novels