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11.21.2011

Twittermania: Why do you tweet? Does it help marketing?

twitterImage by xotoko via FlickrTwitter is a game, Twitter is a political tool, Twitter is a celebrity hunt, Twitter is a waste of time! 

A waste of time? Yes, that's the conclusion that one writer came to after reaching 25,000 followers. Larry Carlat (that's his name) humorously described in a New York Times article (November 15, 2011) how Twitter had become a mania that destroyed his normal social relationships and even affected his job. To tweet, he found he was repairing to the toilet in restaurants so as not to be seen by family and friends. That's when he decided to stop. He deleted his Twitter account and you can't even find him on Facebook!


What is Twitter for you? The 140 characters you are allowed for a message: is it a challenge to express all you want to say? An advantage to zero in on the very essence of the message? A way to sell and promote your stuff? A neat tool for sharing links to interesting articles, books, products and what-have-you? A game to see how many followers you can get? A way to increase your Internet presence?


In a recent article in Time Techland, Graeme McMillan (on Twitter: @graemem) asked his followers that very question: why do it and is it better than other social media? The implication for most people being: is Twitter better than Facebook (or Google+ for that matter, should it ever compete successfully against Facebook).  


He got some very interesting answers which can be condensed as follows:
1. the "tight" form enables "sampling strangers efficiently" and keeps friends "from rambling too much", while Facebook does neither;
2. Twitter is a cocktail party or a meeting at the watercooler or waterhole, take your pick; it "supplements your social life, while Facebook seeks to replace it";
3. Twitter "ignores the barriers of class, age and locale" and enables you to follow what celebrities and politicians say.


A recently released Pew research study, based on a survey of over 2,000 adults conducted in April-May 2011, shows that 66% of Americans are on social media (such as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn) and most - roughly two thirds - are there to connect with family and friends and half say they've used the new technology to connect with old friends they'd lost sight of. 


That leaves only one third of Americans who're on social media for "cocktail party" reasons


In other words, Americans who use social media to find interesting strangers or follow celebrities. More precisely: 14% say they connect around a hobby or shared interest, like say the writers' community - an area where I certainly try to connect on Twitter and tweet about; my other interests of course being politics and art, as anyone who's read this blog knows. Mind you, the writers' community - considering also literary agents, editors, publishers etc - is actually huge. How big I don't know, but consider that there's an estimate of two million writers published and unpublished in America alone!


Then there are only 5 percent who read comments by political figures (take that, politicians! You are not followed as much as you think you are!) and 3 percent who seek romance. Obviously Twitter is not the place for romance ( I would say that among my 1,000 followers I have about a dozen "ladies" who've sent me very sexy pictures of themselves, probably taking me for a man because of my first name - btw, these are people who don't tweet...) .


But let me get to the key statistic: 


Only 9 percent - that little! - say that making new friends is important to them. 


Why Twitter is not necessarily the Best Place to promote your business.


If only 9% of the Americans in the Twitterverse are out there to find new friends and new things, it doesn't bode well for marketing. As Graeme McMillan says, this goes a long way to explain why business and media outlets who send out links to their products aren't getting very far. 


Unless the tweet with your link is a great conversation starter, it will be ignored.


I've experienced that again and again. I send out tweets with links to articles that I find interesting but that is not enough. I have to think of something fun/arresting/special to say about the said link, or else it falls flat on its face. 

This is especially true for writers who send out tweets that promote their books. Nothing could be more boring than a message that says "buy my book", and even adding that it's a steamy romance or an awesome thriller won't get you anywhere. 

Have you ever bought a book on the basis of a tweet?


I know I haven't. Unless the book is a new one from an author I know and like. 


Which brings up my next point: whatever link you send out to your followers, make sure it goes to an interesting product - whether article, book or gadget. Bottom line, content is king. Your followers will stop following if the links you send out are not to their liking. 


For example, on the days I tweet about politics I can tell quite a few of my followers unfollow me. My growth on Twitter has been extraordinarily zig-zaggy.  At first, that puzzled me. Then I realized that there is a stong undercurrent in the American writers' community that dislikes politics. Writers, on average, are not politicized (or if they are, they keep it to themselves) because they are afraid of losing readers

This fear is understandable and makes sense in America, given the strong polarization of American politics. Republicans won't read a writer who's blatantly a Democrat, and Democrats won't enjoy a Tea Party writer.


As a European, I find this is not quite so true here. Though for decades in Italy (at least until the fall of the Berlin Wall), you didn't have a hope to get published if you didn't belong to or were supported by the Communist and/or Socialist parties. That was also true in France. Now that has changed, and there's a lot more tolerance towards a writer's political inclinations. Quite frankly, I don't think they matter in Europe anymore, you won't lose or gain readers on that basis.


If your experience on this is different, please let me know!


Is Twitter a Political Tool for change?


Under this heading there are two main considerations:


1. Having a lot of followers makes sense if you're a political site issuing orders/policy slogans/strategy moves.
But it doesn't make sense if you're a political operative/agent working within a political movement. 

I'm thinking of the way people used Twitter in the Arab Spring, Indignados or Occupy Wall Street movements. Here you want to connect with other fellow agents and coordinate the street theater that your movement has organized. You want to know to what street, square, building you're supposed to go and at what time and for how long. Twitter is an entirely tactical tool - much like a telephone or radio call. 


Facebook can also help organize an event, but it's much more static. Last minute changes can't be announced or acted upon. On that score, Twitter is more agile and operates in real time.


2. Twitter is a form of "micro-blogging" in that it can support and spread a political campaign's main slogans. It can't replace a blog or a newspaper article because it can't dig in depth into an issue. But it can echo and amplify it, enriching it with related ideas/slogans as it spreads.


Lessons to be learned for marketing: 


The successful use of Twitter as a politcal tool combined with what the Pew research tells us about how Americans use Twitter suggest some general lessons for marketing: 


1. The product you sell needs to enjoy near-instant recognition and general support - for books, it's "loyalty transfer", as pointed out by John Locke, the successful seller on one million e-books on Kindle  in just a few months. In short, your readers have to empathize with your books's subject matter - or with you, the writer.


2. The number of followers you have is less important than the way you interact with them. For effectiveness, it has to be a two-way conversation. That has happened to me several times on Twitter and I can honestly say I've made new friends thanks to Twitter.


How do you stay atop of your Twitter stream when you are followed by thousands and follow an equally enormous number? Even at 140 characters a message, there's too much to read! 


There are several ways to do that. 


For example, you can use Tweetdeck to create columns of tweets categorized by subject matter. You can create your own "Daily" with Paper.li which enables you to keep track of all the news/tidbits from favorite Twitterer you're interested in and that show up on your Twitter stream while you're busy elsewhere (you can't be on Twitter 24 hours every day!). 


3. Marketing has to be orchestrated as a political campaign, with objectives and an implementation plan. 


You can't just tweet at random buy my book, read my blog. You can't shower your followers with messages or you'll be considered a spammer. Constant tweets are irking. 


On the other hand, you can't go silent and wake up six months later: people expect a steady stream of (hopefully) valuable information. And since a tweet's "shelf life" is relatively short (4 to 5 hours) and people live in different time zones, you have to tweet accordingly (the same message sent out at broadly different times of day to "catch" your audience).

4. Be aware of what your audience likes. Check your followers' profile: are these the people most likely to buy your product? Follow people whose profile you deem "right" for your product. Some will follow you back. 


Use hashtags with a subject matter related to your product: it will capture the conversation around that topic. It enables anyone on Twitter who's searched that hashtag to find your tweet. Retweet messages related to your product.


Okay, these are just a few of the more obvious elements for a winning marketing strategy on Twitter.


I'm sure there are others and that you can point to them. 


I'd love to hear about  your experience on Twitter! Have you found it useful to your goals - like sell your product or bring readers to your blog?



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11.18.2011

Euro Crisis: Is There a Way to Stop the Contagion?

Stability"Stability"by Rickydavid via FlickrAfter Greece, the Euro crisis has spread to Italy and now Spain. 


Next on the list: France, Netherlands and Finland or perhaps Austria. 


One after the other, countries are the prey of market attacks, each worse than the preceding one. This week, the spread between German  and Spanish bonds has for the first time become as wide - some 500 points - as it is between German and Italian bonds.


500 points seem to be the magic number at which countries and markets panic. 


The point at which investors decide that a country's ability to keep paying its debt is in peril. The spread with Italy has been hovering there for some time now, causing rating agencies (in particular Fitch) to downgrade Italy's credit rating from AA- to A+ a month ago, thus signalling the beginning of the Italian crisis and the end of Berlusconi. At the same time Spain was downgraded from AA+ to AA-... better than Italy, but barely so. And lately France has been forewarned that it risks losing its prized AAA rating. 


Moreover the market for futures is tumbling while the Euro drops against the dollar.  


Conventional wisdom - repeated at nauseam in the press -  is that at this level Italy's debt (some 1.9 trillion Euros) is unsustainable. Italy's economy will implode under the weight of its debt. And this is not Greece. We're talking here of the third economy in the Euro-zone. 


Once Italy goes, so does Spain. Then Belgium (the spread here is already critically high) and next, why not, France. 


When that happens, nothing can save the Euro. With unimaginable consequences in the rest of our globalized world, as the Euro drags down with it international trade, American banks and Chinese exports.


This means that your savings, your pensions, your job in whatever part of the world you happen to live in are at risk.


Over one fiery week-end Italy has shown the world how quickly it can move


Following Berlusconi's retreat, the new government was put together in record time - a government headed by Mario Monti - here in Italy he's called "Super Mario" -  a world-respected economist and former EU Commissioner. It is purely a "governo tecnico" made of technocrats and managers plus one diplomat (the Italian Ambassador to the US was nominated Minister for Foreign Affairs). Thus Monti was careful to select outstanding personalities in the world of academia, finance and diplomacy, including three women, while maintaining for himself the key role of finance minister. He's not going to let any other economist get in his way!


Yet, in its first day of life, Monti's government was not appreciated at home. Protests planned earlier, before Berlusconi 's government fell went ahead anyway. Consisting of a general strike of public transports and student marches in most major cities (with some violence in Milano and Palermo), they struck average Italians as singularly irrelevant and off base. Give the guys a chance to show what they can do!


Sure, Monti picked some bankers in his team and he himself has a Goldman Sachs experience although that hardly means Goldman Sachs controls Monti (or controls Mario Draghi, who's also an ex Goldman Sachs). One in particular, Corrado Passera, provoked rage among the protesters - but what was Monti supposed to do if he wanted the best? Everybody seems to forget that Passera, before he headed the San Paolo Intesa bank had turned around the old, inefficient Italian Postal system and made it a remarkably efficient and well-run organization. All of a sudden, the much derided Italian Postal system had stepped into the 21st century! 


Passero may have been into banking lately but he is above all a manager, and now that he has been placed in charge of economic development, one may expect him to work wonders. And that is bound to become a key area in Monti's strategy: because debt control cannot be achieved at the expense of economic growth.


Sure Monti talked about placing a tax on the "first house" ("ICI" on the main house of residence) and seemed to bow from pressures from Berlusconi who doesn't want to see any wealth tax ("patrimoniale") - no surprise there, since Berlusconi's sole reason to enter politics was and is to defend his own interests. The richest man in Italy, he's not about to pay any tax to anyone if he can help it. And Italy and the Euro be damned! 


My hope is that Monti will in fact resist Berlusconi and will not put undue pressure on the Italian middle class (the one paying this famous ICI tax on the "first house"). Because if he does that, he'd be putting at risk Italian consumption and hence Italian economic recovery. But he's too good an economist not to know that...And he enjoys 75% support in opinion polls and easily won votes of confidence in both houses of Parliament. So chances are good that he will implement the necessary reforms and set Italy on a course to recovery.


Is the Reform Plan Monti Offers Enough to Solve the Euro Crisis?


No. The timing is off. We won't know for many months whether Monti's government will be able to operate a turn around for Italy. My bet is that it will, but markets can't wait that long. Incidentally, the same can be said of Greece or Spain. 


Reforms take time and markets are impatient.


People are impatient too. In the Netherlands, they're talking of establishing the "Neuro" - a Euro reserved to Germany and the Netherlands - the best in the class -  and just about no one else. They're ready to "shed off" all those rascally Greeks and Italians who never learned to tighten their belt. Taxpayers in those northern countries don't want to pay for rescuing their southern neighbors who in their view are only getting what they deserve. A kick in the pants, ja!


The Way Out? Get the European Central Bank to act as a real central bank - like the US Federal Reserve


Mario Draghi (another Super Mario!) is growing impatient. He just told a banking conference in Frankfurt "Where is the implementation of these long-standing decisions?" He was referring to the European Financial Stability Facility that was supposed to save the Euro and has yet to become operational.


Will it ever become operational? I don't think so. 


First, It's way too small in relation to the mountain of debt it's meant to cover (440 million). Second, it's way too shaky to reassure investors. It's meant to be a financial scheme providing insurance to investors in say, Italian or Spanish bonds. In case of default, they would only be covered at best up to 20 percent of value, and possibly not even that if France, one of the two major investors in the Facility (the other being Germany) should lose its Triple A credit rating. Because that would mean the Facility itself would no longer have a Triple A rating either. 


French President Sarkozy, on the occasion of the G20 meeting in Cannes, tried to convince China and other big players like India and Brazil to invest in the Facility to expand it. No such luck so far.


What other solutions are there? Shedding Euro partners, in spite of the Dutch desire to do so, is a non-starter. Greece has made it very clear that it wishes to stay in and Papademos, its Prime Minister - another economist with a remarkable profile,  similar to Monti's - has embarked on a reform program.


No, Euro partners must stay together or all go down together.


Which is why the European Central Bank should act as the lender of last resort - to both banks and governments. 


Which is why Europe must move to "more Europe", as Ms Merkel has recently said (lately she has unexpectedly shown more enthusiasm for the European Union). 


The Euro-zone needs to become a fiscal union, with all monetary, fiscal and economic policies aligned - the kind of policies that are precisely those Italy and Greece are working to implement.


One remaining hurdle: the German fear of inflation

Why is the European Central Bank (ECB) dragging its feet? Because the Germans don't want it to print money. They say the ECB was never set up to buy bonds or engage in any "quantitative easing" policies the way the US Federal reserve does. 


As far as Germany is concerned, the ECB was set up to fight inflation and keep the Euro stable, full stop.


The fact that there is nothing in the ECB charter that talks about a "lender of last resort" role is however a moot point. Basically a central bank should be independant from any government or political views and able to do whatever it sees as necessary, including quantitative easing. 


If quantitative easing is the only way to "keep the Euro stable", so be it. Let it go ahead and work as a Central Bank should.


Why is Germany so fearful of inflation? It's an old story, a historic fear: they remember the run-away inflation of the 1920s that brought Hitler into power. Germany is afraid History will repeat itself. 


But this is not the 1920s! There is no danger from inflation. On the contrary: look at the US! Under Bernanke's guidance the Federal Reserve has repeatedly engaged in quantitative easing and so far this hasn't triggered any inflation and as the latest statistics show, consumer prices are down this quarter in the United States...Not to mention that inflation is not an issue in Europe right now.


Given all this, it's not quite clear why the European Central Bank is still not moving. 


Up to now, I thought it was Trichet's fault. Before heading the ECB, Trichet had been France's central banker and had the usual training of top French civil servants: ENA, Sciences Po and the Ecole des Mines - a great cv that prepared him well for administrative work but he's not an economist. Mario Draghi, on the other hand, is a trained economist: he earned a Ph.D. in economics from MIT. He knows what banking is all about: from the private side (Goldman Sachs, right!) and from the public side (the Italian Central Bank, the World Bank and other international work on financial regulations). This is a man who surely understands what a Central Bank is supposed to do.


My bet is that he's dragging his feet to force governments to engage in the necessary reforms. And if and when he's going to come to the rescue, he certainly won't announce it.


Central bankers famously are the quiet sort that never tell you what their next move will be. 


But investors, in my view, would do well not to underestimate either Draghi or the ECB's clout.


What is your opinion? 


Post scriptum: Mario Monti is travelling through Europe these days, visiting Sarkozy and Merkel with a special project in his bag: Euro-bonds...And a request that the Stability Facility be established asap.

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11.12.2011

The Lure of Self-publishing: Can Amanda Hocking's Success be Replicated?

A Black Swan adult with chicks swimming on a l...Black swan on a lake in Australia Image via WikipediaThe stigma attached to self publishing has gone, but is that reason enough to self-publish?


True, the stigma has been removed by the digital revolution, but the hype about self-publishing has risen to such dangerous heights that it threatens to topple over!


Can you really repeat the success of Amanda Hocking, J.A. Konrath and John Locke? 


J.A. Konrath was a published mid list author when he started to self publish so one can always argue he had a fan base, a known name and could reasonably expect success. Indeed, his blog, so he says, attracts some 500,000 visits/year, a good "platform" or Internet presence, by any means! 


But the other two? They were classic black swans: no one had heard of them, they swooped in from the outside and both sold millions of copies of their books in just a few months. And Amanda Hocking famously went on to land a multi-million deal with a major legacy publisher (St. Martin's Press) and I hear reports that Locke is now working with Simon & Shuster. Enough to get any newbie drooling...


We're in late 2011, and things have changed a lot. There's a tsunami of fiction titles on Amazon's Kindle (at least 750,000 and rising) and e-book sales are outpacing printed book sales. New e-readers are about to come to market (chief among them Amazon's Kindle Fire) and they will presumably further expand the market (more readers, more books sold). On the paperbook side, bookstores are closing, Big Six Publishers have to deal with various game changers, not least of them the bid Amazon is making to become the Next Big Publisher.



So it makes sense to publish e-books, right? Let's all go and self-publish and live happily ever after sunning ourselves on Caribbean beaches! If you read the grand-daddy of bloggers providing self-publishing advice in this new digital age - I'm talking about J.A:Konrath's famed Newbie's Guide to Publishing, the outlook is more than rosy, it's positively exploding fireworks! 


Lately he's opened his blog to other writers who are successfully self-published. The latest is David Gaughran who enthuses about connecting with readers on Internet and recounts how he's known instant success in 6 months, with 20,000 visits/month to his blog plus stratospheric sales for his two novellas. If you haven't read his account and enthusiastic call to all fellow writers to follow him on the glorious road to self-publishing, click here, read it and come back here for the discussion.


How likely is it that you can duplicate Amanda Hocking's success?


In my view, and I know a lot of people aren't going to like me for saying this, I think it's very, very unlikely. 


We hear about the success stories, we don't hear about the (countless) others who sell few copies or none at all.


Why is that?


Because there are pitfalls in self-publishing that  Konrath and his writer friends tend to gloss over (no doubt because they were so successful and didn't fall in any pitfall themselves). He's moving in a restricted circle of successful self-published writers and doesn't know what the world looks like on the outside - particularly if you are (to use his favorite term) a "newbie", a newcomer to the world of publishing.  And I think that the kind of hype you find on his blog and on so many others could be quite dangerous and misleading for aspiring writers (I apologize for singling him out but I did so because he's the best - the others tend to  follow him, echoing the hype). It's just the sort of message that can mislead you into making life decisions that will really hurt you...


Four Pitfalls in Self-publishing


You're on your own and you need to behave as an entrepreneur in all aspects of the publishing process from production to marketing. The only thing that's easy? Getting an ISBN number: it's cheap and anyone can get it for you.
The rest is full of pitfalls: 


1. ms editing and file conversion: 


Not as easy as you might think. If you've been reading ebooks lately, you must have come across an incredible number of formatting errors (too much space, lack of it etc) and typos galore.


So you have to find the best editors to assess book structure, language etc including of course proof-reading. And since this is an e-book, you need people technically able to convert your files into e-books and upload them on all the major platforms (Kindle, Barnes & Noble, iBookstore, Sony Store etc). There's plenty of advice on Internet and you'll find other writers with self-publishing experience all willing to recommend you names. Fine and good, and I'm sure that many of these free-lance people you find in the market are excellent. The only trouble is you can't be sure...not until you've actually tried them, and spent your money on them only to find you've wasted both money and time!


Why? Because free-lance experts come and go, they don't work within the framework of a publisher's organization, with career prospects to cater to. Those who work within such a framework have to be good to avoid a slowdown in their career or being fired. So when you hire a free-lance expert, you don't have the guarantee of work well done that normally comes with an editing job done by the staff of a legacy publisher.


When it comes to file conversion, it's even more difficult and at times (judging from the errors in e-books) even legacy publishers seem to run out of capable staff. You don't have too many options: DIY (I know I can't, I'm a famous digital dunce) or turn to experts like Smashwords (they take a percentage cut) or BookBaby (they charge for the service). 


BookBaby might be the better option since it's only a service charge and not a percentage; also their prices are lower than the usual free-lance expert, except that you end up being published...by BookBaby (!) because Amazon et. al. recognizes the entity that has uploaded the e-book file and not you, the author! Very inconvenient, because as a result, Amazon will not share sales information with you...they share it with BookBaby and the latter is ill-equipped to display the information on-time and in a user-friendly manner (I know because that's what I did - I wanted top notch file conversion quality and got that - at the expense of not being able to follow closely my sales.)


2. Book covers 


As a self-published author you have a big advantage here: you're in charge and you have none of the problems of your published fellow writers who often find that publishers impose on them covers they hate. You have the last word since it's yours but that can be a problem too.


Also a professional book cover is essential for your sales and don't believe you can do it without expert help. Everything I said above applies here too. So, once again, it's a jungle and if you want to survive (and get a smashing cover) you had better act as a savvy entrepreneur! My job was half done because I used my own paintings for my book covers but I still couldn't for the life of me do the cover design as such (choose the lettering, shading etc). Once again, BookBaby did that for me charging for the job a very reasonable amount taking into account I provided the illustration.


Now do my covers "work"? You tell me! The lion is a hieratic statue in Book 1 Forget the Past because precisely it deals with the past that cannot be changed (hence it's a stone statue); Book 2 Reclaim the Present is a lively lion with a honey-colored mane because it deals with the present that can be changed if you work at it; Book 3 Remember the Future is the outline of a lion (you can't quite see him because he's somewhere in the future) and he holds a...tablet computer in his paws. Why remember the future? Because the future will be what you make of the present...The whole trilogy Fear of the Past is focused on the weight of family inheritance and the lion is a symbol of destiny (hence his scowl...). The whole issue the book addresses can be summed up in one question: is heredity destiny? And it takes three books and three lions to answer the question!


Here are the original paintings I did for the book covers (I've set them on the mantelpiece in my studio) and you can compare with what BookBaby did to turn them into book covers (look at upper left angle of this blog page): 




Could I have convinced a legacy publisher to do it in this special way? Maybe or maybe not (because they have their own standards they like to upkeep). But one thing is certain, being on my own I was able to bring to its conclusion what is essentially a rather complex idea for my book covers...


3. Book promotion  


For me, marketing is by far the hardest part. And it's bound to be the hardest for any newbie. Regarding the price you should set your book at, there's plenty of good advice around - so it's probably relatively easy to decide. You'll find that most agree that for a self-pubbed author 99 cents is a good price to launch a title (think of it as a "loss leader") and that $2.99 to $3.99 may well be the "sweet spot" for indies, where sales are maximized. 


There's also a lot of discussion as to whether it makes sense to let a title go free for a time. Some say it boosts sales but no one's been able to prove it. Personally, I'm not sure it does: I can't see that much of a psychological difference with a 99 cents price...


Be that as it may, the real problem is book promotion. A direct promotion doesn't work: you can't tweet like mad "buy my book", no one will! As John Locke advises, use an indirect method - so called "loyalty transfer". Align yourself with some major cause or idea or whatever you think your books stand for and can fit in, then promote them on that basis to "like-minded" people...And maybe they'll buy your books (John Locke swears that's how he made his sales). 


Or you can do what Amanda Hocking did: ride on the tail of Stephanie Meyer's books that opened the royal road of teenage vampires. But make sure you find the right "tail" to ride on!


Or you can pay for a book publicist. I haven't yet and I might...but it's expensive! 


DYI methods all start, according to market gurus, with having a blog (such as this one) and spreading yourself all over the place: from social networks (Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Stumble Upon etc) to readers communities (Goodreads, Shelfari, The Reading Room etc).


Now, it seems that this is something publishers don't do for you (unless you're their star author of course). But as a beginning writer published by a legacy publisher you're expected to do all this yourself. So why would a self-published writer be at a disadvantage?


Oh, but he/she is at a disadvantage, believe me. Once all that Internet  promotional work is done, he/she is still nowhere in terms of landing on a NYT bestseller list, getting reviews from big literary critics or obtaining book prizes (I mean those that count like the Pulitzer). All that glorious stuff is reserved to writers published by the Big Six.


Let's face it: Big Six publishers make "book discoverability" easy.


So, yes, choosing the self-publishing road means foregoing all that. If you sell a lot and make a nice percentage - indeed a better percentage on sales than if you're traditionally published, no doubt about that - then, as Konrath says, you're ok. You're a free person, you make more money, you're not any publisher's "slave" (as he puts it).


But...there's always a but somewhere:


4. Your sales numbers are in the public domain. 


This means that if you don't sell well, that's the first thing a would-be literary agent will find out. And so will a publisher. Unless your numbers are good, they won't take you on.


That's a very big risk. It could cost you your career. Because to promote your books on the sole strength of your blog and a few customers reviews on Amazon and Goodreads isn't going to get you very far...contrary to what Konrath et al. are telling you!


And don't lose sight of one simple thing: the traditional paper book market still accounts for eighty percent of book sales! Yes, e-book sales are rising faster (they're some 18 percent ahead this year) but they account for a still relatively small section of the whole. That will change over the next five years, but not now. Not yet.


So think about it. Do you really believe you've produced an outstanding book? Because in the end, it's content that counts. Sure, if one book doesn't work, you can always put up another on that virtual shelf, and another and another...And every time, making sure you do all that hard work to ensure quality production and book promotion.


Do you feel up to it? If yes, bravo! Go ahead. If not, then a few additional rejection letters until you land that perfect agent who supports you, who believes in your talent and helps you get a decent contract with one of the Big Six should still be one of your career goals...I know it's mine with regard to the manuscripts I'm presently working on and that (for the moment) I have no intention to self-publish. But I also know that the sales for my books that are now up on that virtual shelf could affect my chances of ever landing a contract with one of the Big Six. 


In other words, self-publishing could reduce your options...So think about it well before going ahead!


Do let me know how you feel about this and what decision you've taken!

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11.09.2011

Literature vs. Genre Fiction: A Lost Battle in the Digital Age?

RomanceRomance by Thomas Hawk via Flickr
Is Literature a poor cousin?

It has always been one category among many, and the poor cousin of big genre categories such as Romance, Science Fiction or Thrillers, the main wage earners in the publishing industry.

Think of it as a three-star Michelin restaurant against the likes of MacDonald, Kentucky Fried Chicken or Pizza Hut. Which makes more money?

Okay, that's one a question that needs no answer.

With the Digital Age now upon us, the role of "genre" as the main book distribution and marketing tool in the industry has come under fire. Amazon in particular disrupted all accepted marketing schemes (and so did all the other digital platforms, Barnes & Noble etc). For the first time, genre became less necessary as a tool to (1) plan sales and  (2) ensure book discovery.

The digital revolution has done away with one of the big hurdles of traditional publishing: gauging sales demand to determine how many books need to be printed. E-books are stored in the "cloud", no need to print in advance. And  Print-on-Demand technology solves the problem from paper books. So in principle, both the virtual and physical book markets should be enhanced by the digital revolution. 

The virtual book market has one big advantage on the real paper market. 

Amazon (and other digital platforms) is able to do something traditional publishers can't:  they can track customer purchases on their computers, and that allows them to operate on the concept "if you liked this [book], you going to like this one [suggestions for another book]".

That's something traditional publishers can't do. They have to rely on bookstores to do this particular work for them - not big bookstores, but small local ones who know their clients and have established a relationship of trust with their readers. For example, when I walk in my favorite bookstore in Paris, the old-fashioned Delamain library near the Louvre, I find they've got the big sellers all laid out on a table so I can't miss them as I walk in, but they've also peppered the whole store with little index cards stuck on book piles with hand-written notes telling me how they felt about the book, the genre, how well it did in its genre and why. I'm grateful to them for these little flyers, they help me in orienting myself among titles that I don't know.

But this is horse and buggy technology! With the digital revolution, book discoverability can be refined, accelerated and fine-tuned to the exact tastes of the client (as expressed in past purchases). And of course readers can get directly involved as they themselves write "customers reviews". Inevitably, as a reader you always trust another reader more than the author or the publisher. 

Indirect marketing (i.e. readers' buzz) always works better and in the digital age, it has become a lot easier to organize (as Amazon knows very well).

That's a sea change in the industry - of course, it applies mainly to e-books, and this year so far e-books have outsold paper books by a whopping 18 percent in the United States. And that's only the beginning of the digital tidal wave: it has yet to come to major readers markets like France, Germany, Spain and South America etc. Amazon has just opened Kindle Stores in some major countries on the European continent but it hasn't really spread yet across the globe (for example there are whole regions like English-speaking Africa - some 200 million readers -  that are still not covered).

We're on the verge of a Guttenberg style change in reading habits. 

I really believe we are. A few weeks ago I blogged about the awsome fact that more american adults read literature than ever before - in 2008, close to 17 million more and most of them young adults  of which the largest group is between the age of 18 and 24, and it's also the one most rapidly increasing: 21%!  

When the Christmas season comes, that's the age group that will be given Kindles and other e-readers as gifts, that's the age group that will download books that are 99 cents or free. Such prices do not however spell the end of the book market. E-reader buyers are still mostly older and better off. For example, they are the ones who buy Apple's Ipads.  But Amazon has quickly grasped that there's a big market out there for a cheap computer tablet.

We all fully expect the Kindle Fire to set...fire to the market this coming Christmas!

That relatively well-off e-reading majority is the one going for the more expensive e-books - at $10 and above, the price practiced by traditional publishers. Below  the $10 point is the preserve of the Indies - self-published authors who incidentally continue to debate among themselves where the "sweet point" of prices might lie (between $2.99 and 4.99) and how long they should leave their books for free before raising the price again etc etc.

Such debates are not terribly useful because nobody knows exactly what is the market composition age-wise and income-wise (though Amazon may have some notions about this)

Market Analysis by Genre Remains the Main Tool for Traditional Publishers

Only one thing is certain: in this fast shifting readers landscape, traditional publishers are at a disadvantage compared to digital platforms. To plan their sales, analysis by genres remains their main tool but, based as it is on past sales reported by bookstores, it will become increasingly unreliable as a means to predict the future. 

How will traditional publishers react? Well that is something we already know. When the world collapses around you, you hold on to what you know. That means traditional publishers continue to privilege all genres that have sold well in recent years (chief among them Romance) and within the genres, their leading authors: facing the digital competition, they can't afford wrong bets (and that of course is not good news for aspiring new authors or mid list authors with declining sales). 

Moreover, news that have recently come out that the leading genres among e-book readers are Romance and Sci Fi is likely to further comfort them in their publishing choices.

Is Literature, already a poor cousin, likely to get thrown even further down the line?

I don't believe that's a likely outcome, on the contrary. First consider the statistics: apart from the fact that we are facing an expanding readers' market, let's remember that it hasn't yet gone digital entirely, and not by a very long shot: at least 80% is still printed material! As Laura Hazard Owen reminded us in an excellent article (in The Truth about Amazon Publishing), while Amazon has done beautifully so far in the digital world, its battle in the real, traditional paper world is not yet won. Libraries continue to have their say and view Amazon as a dangerous rival. It's going to be hard for Amazon to place its published trade paper books in traditional bookstores...

So horse and buggy technologies for book discoverability still prevail in about 80% of the readers market in the United States (and of course more so elsewhere). 

Genre as a marketing tool isn't about to be blown away or replaced with sophisticated purchase tracking computer technology.

Literature will continue to be aptly supported by traditional marketing methods, including book prizes like the Pulitzer and Man Booker Prize.

This is not to say that the digital age will have no effect - or has none yet. I believe it is already having some effect in that it improves the chances of authors who don't fit into formulaic genres to be discovered. Including literary authors who (by definition) are NOT formulaic.  

The digital age's biggest effect: expanded book discoverability

Readers who have eclectic tastes will find more easily what they're looking for on a digital site by typing in key words of their own choosing. For instance if you typed in historical+paranormal+thriller+coming of age you'd be likely to come across odd books that would include my Fear of the Past trilogy (mmm, you'd have to add Sicily to the lot! And besides, I don't pretend to be "literary"...) 

And I'm convinced there are many more eclectic readers out there than most publishers give them credit for. I'm certainly one. I don't know about you, but after reading a series of books in a given genre or by the same author, I get tired of it. I start to see the formula too clearly and I need a change of pace. Monotony breeds boredom, change is the source of all pleasure. 

In that sense, literary fiction has the ability to surprise and delight. It doesn't fit into any predetermined formula, as was brilliantly displayed by Jennifer Egan in her Goon Squad (she even had a chapter in the form of a Power Point Presentation). She won the Pulizer Prize but didn't draw much consensus on Goodreads, one of the American main readers community site. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I participated in a reader group reading Egan's novel and noticed that my fellow readers on the whole felt the book didn't "grab" them. Not too surprising, considering that points of views kept changing from one chapter to the next making it difficult to "enter" the book. 

Another example of a literary letdown? Take Simon Mawer's The Glass Room, last year's runner up to the Man Booker Prize. It also drew lots of mixed reviews and for much the same problems.
 LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 08:  The six short...Image by Getty Images via @daylife
If you've read it, you'll have noticed right away a problem that seems to be common to a lot of literary fiction: as a reader, you can't get "into it", and whenever you finally do, you can't stay "in it". Because the author constantly changes the game on you: characters drop out and don't reappear until much later if at all. Major tragedies happen to them (like in the Glass Room, the husband dies in America and his wife goes blind) but this is never adequately explained or explored, yet they were both Main Characters at the start of the novel.

When Literature becomes too "literary" for its own good.

This ability to set up a plot and characters and then drop them, then pull them up again is pure virtuosity. You as a reader are literally asked to admire the talent with which it's done, and of course you do. But you also get annoyed after a while: what you want is to be told a good story that is going to keep you going with bated breath! It's not pleasant to be picked up only to be dropped down again.

Now some big literary giants don't do that and (not too surprisingly) they are rewarded with stratospheric sales. And something else is noteworthy about them:  they tend to come up from among the genre fiction writers. Perhaps one of the most famous examples is Stephen King. He came out of the horror genre but has shown himself to be capable of pure "slice of life" writing in the best tradition of Great Literature. I can think of many more like Khaled Hosseini or John Le Carré, and you might care to add to that list.

But I think what all these particular GLS (Great Literary Sorts) have in common with GR (genre writers) is the ability to fix on a plot, keep the characters in there from the first page to last, and never drop their readers out in the cold, forcing them to make efforts to "get into" the book again and again. On the contrary. They grab you and keep you in.

That's a trick literary guys could really learn from genre fiction writers!

The Outlook for Literature: Rosy!

Once literary authors do - and I'm sure a lot do and will - then chances for Literature with a capital L will really start looking up. Literary novels will become page-turners, exactly like genre fiction!

And the outlook is rosy indeed. More books are sold than ever before, both e-books and printed books, and  there are more readers than at any time in human History. And with the digital age, more flexibility is introduced in book access and discoverability. If as an author you don't fit into any genre niche, you can still hope to make it!

In spite of all the moaning and groaning brought on by the digital age, writers take heart, the future of publishing looks very bright indeed! And readers enjoy, you'll get more and more of the stuff you like!


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