Unless you’ve had your head in the sand somehow for at least the last three months, you might know that we live in interesting times. And I do mean the “old Chinese curse” interesting, scare quotes because I honestly don’t know if that really was an old Chinese curse or just a bit of American racism tacked onto a bit of common wisdom. Interesting times may take up your attention, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. I suspect most of us would prefer a little stability in our lives.
This can be particularly hard if you are a creative. I just saw statistics that said as much as 52% of small businesses are expected to close over this summer. That’s a lot of people out of work, and a lot of people’s dreams that are no longer viable due, largely, to increasing economic uncertainty in the US. That uncertainty centers around the pandemic, of course, but it’s exacerbated by a lack of leadership that I think we’ve all felt. And it means that a lot of creatives are suddenly in a place where they aren’t sure where their next paycheck is coming from.
In these trying times, I had a book come out.
I’m not pivoting here for self-promo, though if you buy my books it does help. No, I’m pivoting because of self-promo — because, for the past two months, while the pandemic has raged and protests have rocked our cities, I have been trying to do the work of self-promotion (along with my fellow authors). I’ve been shouting into the void while a storm raged. And I’ve had a lot of feelings about it.
I think the percentage of time you spend marketing is probably inversely related to your reach. That is to say, it becomes less useful to spend a lot of time marketing the more you’ve locked in your fanbase. When you have a few thousand followers, your number one indicator of sales is going to be through reaching those followers directly, and your number two is going to be through word of mouth. This is why many self-published authors advise keeping a mailing list — even if you only mail out about your releases, you’re making sure that someone who has already expressed interest in your product sees it. Social media does convince people to buy books, but only people who were either a) already buying your books anyway and aren’t subscribed to your mailing list or b) are snowballed by messages for several weeks because all of your fans are losing it over the book.
You can see this latter phenomenon in titles like This is How You Lose the Time War and Gideon the Ninth. In the first case, the authors already had a great fanbase and so most of the tweets were between the fanbases as they met one another, between the authors, or from the publisher to the authors. For the latter, Gideon the Ninth has generated, no pun intended, a cult following. Both of these events are great examples of social media marketing causing folks to buy books, but they are incredibly hard to replicate. Social media is essentially word of mouth.
Malcolm Gladwell talks about the phenomenon of what makes a trend in his book The Tipping Point, and the basic takeaway is that it’s nearly impossible to bottle this energy. It requires that you reach influencers from your target community at the exact right time. In other words, it’s worth a shot but don’t get twisted if it doesn’t work out. It’s literally alchemy.
Of course, it becomes very hard for this alchemy to happen if the conditions aren’t right. And one of the things that works against you is if your entire community is dealing with rampant social justice issues.
So anyway, my fellow authors and I spent several weeks trying to generate some word of mouth buzz about our book when most of what people wanted to talk about was, understandably, not the book. And please understand there’s no commentary here or subtext. I one hundred percent support our community having these conversations. But I do have a takeaway for authors from this. There’s a tendency to feel guilt about self-promo in times of crisis. Don’t. We’ve all seen the numbers, seen the economic wave that’s coming. It’s hit many of us already. You have to take care of your basic needs first. If you don’t treat the conversations going on around you as a marketing gimmick or an inconvenience you’ll be okay.
There’s also, however, a tendency to think that if you just shout louder, more frequently, that if you just put the right words together, you’re going to reach people. Even in normal times, that’s not the case. You shouldn’t be silent or shy or guilty about self-promo, but you also can’t expect to compete with the craziness of this world. It’s luck and years of work that let authors and other creatives take the social media world by storm — and believe me, it is in fact a bit of both. The luck is just as important. So be kind to yourselves when you self-promo.