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11.29.2011

Self-Published Books: the Digital Age Slush Pile?

Amazon Kindle Fire
Amazon Kindle has probably passed the one million mark in e-book titles as of now, considering that it stood at 750,000 a year ago, and adds as much as 1,000 titles a day!  

Much of it self-published (how much is not given to know) - thus giving self-published authors what they see as a "level playing field" with traditional publishers, both big and small. The digital revolution has wiped away the stigma of self-publishing, giving indies a unique opportunity to distribute their books and connect with readers without having to go through a traditional publisher.

Most certainly a unique opportunity but as I have already pointed out once before, full of pitfalls for the newbies (see here for my post on the subject). Not so for the already published author with a fan base: he/she has a much better chance "to make it", particularly on the marketing side, than an aspiring author whom no one has heard of.

This much is obvious. But there are other reasons, and I'm not the only one ringing the alarm bells. Here's a fascinating article published on The Millions, an online magazine offering coverage on books, arts, and culture since 2003. The Millions has been featured on NPR and noted by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Village Voice, among others.

One of its staff writers,  Edan Lepucki,  recently made a list of reasons not to self-publish: 
1. Traditional Publishing is not Dead: 
This is an important point Edan makes right from the beginning, and something one should keep in mind when considering self-publishing:  
People love to talk about how traditional publishing is dying, but is that actually true? According to The New York Times, the industry has seen a 5.8% increase in net revenue since 2008. E-books are “another bright spot” in the industry, and the revenue of adult fiction grew by 8.8% in three years. (Take that, Twilight!) 
Of course, the industry has troubles. The slim profit margins of books; the problems of bookstore returns; the quandary of Borders closing and Amazon forever selling books as a loss-leader; how to make people actually pay for content, and so on. Furthermore, the gamble of the large advance strikes me as ridiculous — and reckless, considering that editors and marketing teams have no real clue which books will be hits and which ones...
And yet. And yet. I read good books by large publishing houses all the time, books that take my breath away...I trust publishers. They don’t always get it right, but more often than not, they do...As I said...“I want a reputable publishing house standing behind my book; I want them to tell you it’s good so that I don’t have to.”
One of Edan's readers commented that this showed she lacked self-confidence as a writer - that she should need "validation" from a publishing house in order to find the courage to publish. 

Validation? Maybe. But it is still true that the publishing industry has a "slush pile" system to filter incoming submissions from aspiring writers and sift out the "outstanding" ms, the one that "will sell". Of course, what a publisher or a literary agent who is the front line in this slush pile filtering process thinks is "outstanding" is clearly an entirely subjective matter...

2.    Literary Fiction is Not a Big Seller in Self-Publishing on Digital Platforms:

Another point Edan makes, but perhaps misleading:
Many of the writers who have found success in self-publishing are writers of straightforward genre fiction. Amanda Hocking writes young adult fantasy, dwarfs and all. Valerie Forster, who published traditionally before setting out on her own, writes legal thrillers. Romance, too, often does just fine without a publisher. Aside from Anthropology of An American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann, I can’t think of another literary novel that enjoyed critical praise and healthy sales when self-published. That’s not to say that it can’t — and shouldn’t — happen, it’s only to point out that it’s a tougher road for writers of certain sorts of stories.
Several people commented (including myself) that what sells is a "good story" rather than any specific genre. But it is equally true that "straightforward genre" - particularly Romance - trumps literary everytime, in both the digital and real world of printed books. Literary books make a lot less money on average, but it is in the literary category that "black swans" tend to arise more often - you know what I mean, the unusual book that sets a new trend in literature, like, for example, Tolkien's books that started a whole new genre, the medieval fantasy...

On a secondary note, Edan added:
Readers like me aren’t seeking out self-published books. Why not? That’s for another essay. (Please, can someone else write that one?) Until the likes of Jeffrey Eugenides and Alice Munro begin publishing their work via CreateSpace, I don’t see the landscape for literary fiction changing anytime soon.
She also later in the article confesses that she hasn't got an e-reader - undoubtedly it partly explains the pro-traditional publisher bias in her list. But still, I believe that this list is not something self-published authors who have gone digital should dismiss or underestimate. Most people still read printed books!

3.  A Small Press is Often an Aspiring Writer's Best Friend: 

Probably based on her own experience with small presses, Edan has yet another point:
The conversation about self-publishing too often ignores the role of independent publishing houses in this shifting reading landscape. Whether it be larger independents like Algonquin and Graywolf, or small gems like Featherproof and Two Dollar Radio, or university presses like Lookout Books, the imprint at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, which recently published Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision (nominated for this year’s National Book Award), independent presses offer diversity to readers, and provide yet another professional option for authors. These presses are run and curated by well-read, talented people, and they provide readers with the same services that a large press provides: namely, a vote of confidence in a writer the public might have never heard of. Smaller presses, too, enjoy a specificity of brand and identity that too often eludes a larger house...

True enough but small presses can easily go bankrupt. I know mine did here in Italy, in 1991 when I published a children's book that was an instant success with critics and won three prestigious Italian  national awards  (that was the first time I made money off my writing!). I thought I had it made, I was euphoric until the press defaulted and never distributed my book anywhere in Italy. Just folded and that was that! I was working full time in the United Nations and didn't have the courage - or time - to pick up the pieces and try to sell it elsewhere...

4. Self-Publishing is Better for the Already-Published
Perhaps the smarter, and far more seductive, path is the one where the writer begins his career with a traditional publisher, and then, once he’s built a base of loyal readers, sets off on his own. The man who loves to talk smack about the publishing industry, J.A. Konrath, already had an audience from his traditionally-published books by the time he decided to take matters into his own hands. It’s much harder to create a readership out of nothing...
How true! And I would add that when you re-publish on a digital platform a book that has once been published traditionally, most of your book presentation and promotion problems are already solved. 

When you self-publish you are on your own: you have to decide the genre of your book, the sales pitch, the cover style etc etc. I know how hard that can be: my Fear of the Past Trilogy is really cross genre: historical (many characters are historical but the protagonist isn't - he's a computer whiz kid );  paranormal (in the limited sense that the protagonist meets his ancestors in a Place Out of Time in Book 1 and is trapped in the mind of his great-great grandfather in Book 2, in time to witness the collapse of his family) but there are no scary ghosts or gore. In book 3, the protagonist takes his own life in his hands and fights the Sicilian and Russian Mafia, trying to save both the woman he loves and his creation, a social network that is an innovative cross between Facebook and Second Life. Thus, you could argue Book 3 is both a romance and a techno-thriller and all three books are focused on the protagonist's self quest and his attempt to rid himself of the burden of his family's past.

So what genre is it? Does that make it Young Adult (age group, 14 to 18)? Strictly speaking no, because the protagonist who's 17 at the start of the trilogy is 22 when it ends! So I guess it's general fiction for general reading, hum...

Perhaps a better title for the Trilogy would have been Fear of Failure, because that is the fear that haunts and paralyzes this brilliant young man who doesn't really know who he is and what he can achieve...a fear, I believe, that besets not just the young but all of us. Imagine! Here I go and self-publish a book and once it's up there on the virtual shelf, I have second thoughts and doubts about its very title!

Sure I could pay an editor to go over it (I have actually) and give me advice. But can I really trust the advice since I'm the one paying? Isn't that person going to be tempted to tell me what I want to hear? Or perhaps not give it much attention since being freelance, there are plenty other jobs beckoning out there?
   
5. Publishers Add Value to Your Books

Here, to make the point since Edan is not yet published herself, she got one famous author's opinion:
I decided to ask the most famous writer I know, Peter Straub, if he’s ever considered leaving the world of big publishing and putting out a book all by his lonesome. After all, he’s a bestselling author and editor of more than 25 books (18 novels alone!), and he’s a horror writer beloved by genre geeks and snobby literary types alike... He told me:
True self-publication means writers upload content themselves, and plenty already do it. I’m not quite sure how you then publicize the work in question, or get it reviewed, but that I am unsure about these elements is part of the reason I seek always, at least for the present, to have my work published in book form by an old-style trade publisher...
Most of the editors I have worked with over the past thirty-five years have made crucial contributions to the books entrusted to them, and the copy-editors have always, in every case, done exactly the same. They have enriched the books that came into their hands. Can you have good, thoughtful, creative editing and precise, accurate, immaculate copy-editing if you self-publish?
 
Exactly right. You can't, can you? 

As I just said above, if you're the one paying, the temptation is great for the editor and copy-editor to just get the job done as fast as possible and move on to the next client. 

Now, on the other hand, if the editor is part of the publishing house's structure he/she has to think of his/her career. The job has to be well done because the editor is part of an institutional structure that demands quality books.

That's a very big plus provided by traditional publishers to their authors.

Ditto for book covers of course.  Some authors have problems with their publisher's book covers or illustrations (I know I did - for my children's book the illustrator the publisher selected was awful and I was lucky with my second book in 2007: the publisher agreed to use one of my paintings for the cover). But overall, publishers aim for a certain style/brand and that can only be helpful in the long run.

6. The E-Reading Conundrum; or, I don’t want to be Amazon’s Bitch

Edan here used a strong word: "Amazon's bitch" (I didn't - the subtitle is entirely hers) and she goes on:
Many self-published authors have gone totally electronic, eschewing print versions of their work altogether. I can’t see myself taking that route, however, because I don’t own an e-reader, and I don’t have plans to buy one (not yet, anyway… I read a lot in the bath, etc., etc.). It seems odd that I wouldn’t be able to buy my own book — I mean, shouldn’t I be my own ideal reader? I also prefer to shop at independent bookstores, and in fact, I pay full price for my books all the time. The thought of Amazon being the only place to purchase my novel shivers my timbers. I don’t mind if someone else chooses to read my work electronically, just as I don’t mind if Amazon is one of the places to purchase my work; I’m simply wary of Amazon monopolizing the reading landscape. Self-publishing has certainly offered an alternative path for writers, but it’s naive to believe that a self-published author is “fighting the system” if that self-published book is produced and made available by a single monolithic corporation. In effect, they’ve rejected “The Big 6″ for “The Big 1.”
As you my readers know, I've gone "digital" and so far no printed version of my Fear of the Past trilogy exists but I'm working to upload one on CreateSpace (will let you know when the printed version becomes available). But honestly, I don't believe there any reason to fear becoming “Amazon’s bitch”. Why fear Amazon? Why use the degrading term "bitch"? If there is this (bizarre) possibility, you could argue that there is equal danger in becoming anyone of the Big Six Publishers’ bitch! In any case, one can always go (as I have) to another digital platform: Barnes & Noble (the Nook), iBookstores (for the Ipad) or Sony Stores or even sell the books directly on one's website like Rowland is doing on Pottermore. Indeed, it is highly advisable and makes total economic sense to publish on as many platforms as you can. Amazon is not the only digital player, and worldwide it may never become The One (but that's the subject of another post!)

7.  What Happens When the Digital Revolution Swells the Number of Books to the Point of Making it Look like a Slush Pile? Is it Best for Readers?

 Edan is very clear on that:  
As a member of the reading public, I am not prepared, or willing, to wade through all that unfiltered literature. As a writer, I must put my head back to the grindstone and write a book that more than a handful of readers can fall in love with. 
One can only agree with her: I'm also busy "putting my head back to the grindstone" and writing my next novel. That's why we're writers, right? But to argue that an avalanche of self-published books is a bad thing per se...Well, I don't agree. 

First, the cream will rise to the top. It always does: word of mouth is still the best and time-honored way to spread knowledge about good reads. It may take time, but trust me, good books will always be discovered, sooner or later.

Second, in the Digital Age, clever electronic ways can be devised to speed up book discovery. Amazon already does a remarkable job of it and indeed that is why it is fast becoming a major publisher, perhaps even (as I once posted - click here) the Next Big Publisher. 

But, as Seth Godin says (see article below), book discovery on e-readers is still in its infancy. He acknowledges readily that the success of his Domino publishing project was based on a core group of 50,000 subscribers. He reportedly has just shut the project down not because it failed, but because it seems he wants to get involved in other things, saying this was merely a "project" and as such should "come to an end". And there is little doubt that Konrath's success in selling his thrillers has a lot to do with the success of his blog (500,000 visits a year, so he says).

Publishing Perspectives recently reported on one small bookstore's fascinating quiz to help readers find their next read in function of their tastes  (yes, bookstores still exist and are very innovative and dynamic - indeed, if they weren't, they wouldn't survive in the Digital Age...) I took the quiz just to see how it works - it was fun to take by the way - and I was amazed at how well it worked! It immediately suggested a book of the kind that I really like to read...  But I didn't buy it because this book was not available...on the Kindle! Still, I'm convinced that quiz would work wonders on Amazon or any of the other digital platforms: fun to take and effective in identifying attractive titles!

I would love to hear your reactions to these points! Do you believe the days of traditional publishers as "gatekeepers" of literary taste are over? Will ways be found to avoid turning the mountain of e-books on Amazon (and elsewhere) into a "slush pile" discouraging readers?
 

, on The Millions's staff, is a fiction writer and instructor living in Los Angeles. Her stories have been published in major magazines (McSweeney's, Narrative Magazine, Meridian, and the Los Angeles Times Magazine, among others). Learn more about her writing classes at writingworkshopsla.com.
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11.25.2011

Angela Merkel and the Euro Crisis: Is She an Angel or a Demon?

STRASBOURG, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 24:  French Pres...
Merkel - Sarkozy- Monti Press Conference in Strasburg, 24 November 2011

On Thanksgiving Day, while Americans ate their beloved turkey and pumpkin pie, the world started falling apart.

It happened in the course of  a press conference in Strasburg where Angela Merkel, Germany's Chancellor and French president Sarkozy magnanimously received the visit from the new Italian premier Mario Monti.

Our dear Angela (an angel?) got once again busy stoking the fire that will consume the Euro.

While Monti looked increasingly uncomfortable and Sarkozy smiled benevolently, she was very clear in her school-marmish way: forget about Eurobonds and using the European Central Bank to bailout governments in financial trouble. The European Central Bank's "independence should be preserved"! Of course, she failed to add that she is the first one attacking the Bank's independence and dictating what the Bank should do and should not do.

If her objective was to kill Europe, she came close to achieving it.

She is always saying "Nein!" to all measures that could save the Euro. There has been a lot of talk that Europe has been driven by the German-French Duo, and the arrival of Monti on the scene heralded the start of a European Triumvirate - not something Monti likes, being someone wedded to the cooperative approach to build Europe, without leaving anyone out. A generous position if ever there was one.

But the truth of the matter is, Europe is not driven by a Duo or a Triumvirate.

Europe is driven by Germany - a Germany that refuses to help fellow Europeans. A Germany that always demands more austerity and promotes an economic model that is sure to suffocate economic growth, create untold pain and provoke social tensions across the continent.

Are you surprised that Germany is so negative?

I can't say I am. The spirit of perpetual negation is a profoundly German trait. Goethe knew this well when he wrote his famous line describing Mephistopheles:

Ich bin der Geist der stets verneint!
I am the Spirit that always denies!
(line 1338, in Faust)

Johannes Faust with Homunculus, Mephistopheles


So Ms. Merkel is no Angel: she is the Spirit that always says Nein!

She dashed hopes that she would listen to Monti who, being a good economist, had come to her with a sensible Eurobond proposal - sometimes called "stability bonds" but the idea is always the same: they would be collectively backed by Euro-zone governments and the interest rates would settle somewhere between the highest (Greece and Italy) and the lowest (Germany), probably around 5%.

Obviously an idea that is thoroughly disliked by Germans as it would make it more costly for Germany to raise money. But Germany had better think twice: it's latest bond sale crashed as one third went unsold, a clear signal that the Euro crisis has reached Germany at last, the core of the Euro zone.  Reminding everyone that Euro zone members are in this all together. They will stand together or fall together.

Go and tell Ms. Merkel, the Spirit that says always Nein!

Instead she vaguely talked about changing the European Treaties first - a process that would take years and that the markets will not wait for. Because markets demand instant responses. And, yesterday, as soon as Merkel had finished talking, they dove down. Wall Street was closed but one may expect the markets to plunge further today.

Because the markets know something Ms. Merkel apparently doesn't. That if the Euro collapses, so will Europe and the rest of the world as we know it. Why? Because world trade will also collapse since Europe is the world's biggest trader and the largest market for both China and the United States. Once world trade goes, the ensuing economic tornado will make the aftermath of the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers look like summer rain.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this Euro crisis is the unquenchable optimism of German businessmen. Yesterday, a German survey reported that they felt more optimistic than ever. In what kind of world do Germans live?

How can they get it so wrong? I'll tell you, it's easy to understand. With the establishment of the Euro, things could not have gone better for Germany. First the Euro, launched at parity with the US dollar, plunged immediately below, making it cheap and stoking exports. A boon for the German economy that was in trouble at the time, with relative high wages and social tension. The export-led boom solved many of Germany's economic and social problems in the early 2000s, although it left a large segment of the population outside of the boom - additional reasons why Germans are in no mood to help bail out Euro zone countries that they see as profligate. Even with a high Euro, the Germans kept exporting. No doubt thanks to the quality of their products, but a major reason is also that German business has been able to obtain loans at the lowest rates in Europe. Lately there are signs that German exports are slowing down. Are German exporters worried by the Euro crisis? Not really. In the short term, they see it as something very, very good for Germany: as the Euro finally weakens, exports will become attractive again.

What German businessmen forget, is that currency movements can be very fast and unexpected. If a Central Bank is not allowed to defend its currency's stability when speculators attack it - the case now with the Euro -  then the currency will crash, banks will fail, trade will stop, jobs will disappear, income will evaporate, savings will go down the drain, pensions will go unpaid...

It will usher in a new Financial Ice Age that will affect the whole world - yet another unpleasant aspect of globalization. It is likely to last much longer than the Big Depression of the 1930s, with much larger and longer lasting impact on society worldwide. The poor will get poorer - and hungrier - but the super-rich, that famous one percent, will also have lost everything.

And we shall all have Ms. Merkel to thank for.

Because there will be nowhere to go. Savvy investors for the moment are eyeing Dubai's sovereign debt figuring that with the Gulf Oil States, their money should be safe. Let the Euro collapse, one can always run to petro-dollars. But they're forgetting something: in a tradeless world, petrol cannot command the same prices... 

Can anything or anyone at this point save the Euro (and the world)?

Yes, there is something.

Ms. Merkel, instead of saying that what the Euro and Europe need is "more Europe" (sounds intelligent but it is singularly bereft of any meaning in your mouth), why don't you start saying "Let the European Central Bank be independent and act as a Central Bank"?

You ackowledge yourself that currency stability is in the ECB's mandate. If it is, then let it work on it. Freely - let it act as a Central Bank should. And if it means issuing Eurobonds collectively backed by Eurozone members, making the bonds like US Treasury Bills, let it be. It will surely cost Germany less in the long run, just a few additional percentage points, compared to losing everything...

Ms. Merkel, which do you prefer? 


Or is your aim to go down in History as as the usherer of the New Financial Ice Age?


STRASBOURG, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 24:  French Pres...A Triumviate or Lady Merkel's Boys? Image by Getty Images via @daylife


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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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