Confession: I broke one of the unwritten rules of the Writer Code.
I ranted. In public. On an agent’s blog.
And yet I’m still here to tell to the tale. In fact, the agent responded to my comment and then—in a show of fantastic grace—emailed me to make sure I didn’t take offense. We ended up having an honest and heartfelt email conversation about the issues plaguing the publishing industry.
But I wouldn’t recommend trying that at home, kids. *smile*
On Tuesday, Rachelle Gardner’s blog post was titled “Author Marketing & Platform: *It’s All About the Numbers*” She explained that when agents submit proposals to publishers, the marketing folk want hard numbers: blog page views, monthly unique visitors, Klout score, Twitter followers, Facebook friends, etc.
I understand what she was saying. Marketing departments speak in numbers, and if we speak their language, they’ll better understand a proposal.
What Publishers Don’t Understand
“[I]f this is what publishers care about, they’re doomed.”
Rachelle replied to my comment with an overall counter-rant about how so many people were taking her post the wrong way. (She followed up with an email to make sure I understood her reply was to everyone in general and not ranting at me. That’s a great example of real class.) On her blog, she said to me:
“This post was ever and only about your platform and how to express it in numbers that a publisher will understand.”
My argument was never with Rachelle and what she was informing us about the nature of the business. My disagreement is with those publishers who think ability to sell books (i.e., platform) can be measured by social media numbers.
As social media maven Kristen Lamb said at Jane Friedman’s blog that same day:
“Theoretically, I could hold up my White Pages and say, “I have 30,000 friends.” But how many of those people know me? …
In the end, do I really have 30,000 friends, or just a list of meaningless names and equally meaningless relationships?”
So I replied on Rachelle’s blog (yes, I apparently had a death wish on Tuesday):
“I’ve seen Twitter accounts with 20K followers and zero tweets … The follow-back group on Twitter has huge numbers of followers…that don’t listen to or care about them. … But I seriously doubt the marketing departments take that into account, and that’s the problem with relying on numbers alone to form an impression.”
The Numbers Are Meaningless
I’ve talked many times before about how the real power of social media is compounding our numbers through our network, our tribe. This is why the numbers don’t give even a tenth of the picture. But the potential misleading nature of trusting in these social media numbers goes beyond that.
My Tech Guy got into the debate on Rachelle’s blog with a jaw-droppingly sinister plan:
“The numbers you’re quoting are all easily hacked. So for publishers to be metric driven when those underlying metrics are easily faked shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Social Media and the Internet. …
If you gave me a week and $2500, I could:
Add 50-500K daily hits to a web site …
Pay a service to run up Twitter / Facebook numbers …
[H]ire an office in India for a week to post real blog comments, set up hundreds of fake accounts, and do enough cross communication to make them all seem real. Those accounts could be used to run up Klout, RT comments, follow me, talk to me.”
(And can I just say I’m glad he’s a certified white-hat hacker? Sheesh.)
Ever Feel Like Taking Your Ball and Going Home?
As part of my email exchange with Rachelle, I said:
“[J]ust like any situation where people are reduced to a number, this concept rankles writers. … I have personal relationships with best-selling authors, but by reducing my connections to a number, those influential friends of mine count the same as a spammer.
So a post like this, where I understand what you’re saying, but where it seems like publishers are putting the emphasis on the wrong things, makes me question my values. Should I be cheating the system to make my numbers look better?
My answer is if that is/was the truth of the publishing industry, I wouldn’t want to be a part of it. …
[T]here’s a general fear among writers that the numbers-people [at publishers] have more power than the words-people. We hear more stories every day of editors loving books and the marketing people shooting down the possibility of an offer. What message does that send? That the numbers are more important than the words.”
And in an email reply that she admitted was depressing, she said it is true that the numbers-people have more power than the words-people. (The only reason I’m not quoting her here is because I don’t quote from private emails without permission, but I’m not twisting the meaning. Believe me, I wish this wasn’t true.)
This is why I started my initial rant with my opinion that corporate publishing—that is, large publishing companies where the acquiring editors are some of the least powerful people—might as well be doomed.
We’ve all heard that it comes down to great content. That we need to write a great book. At some publishers, that concept is a myth.
The Way a Business Should Look at the Numbers
I don’t disagree that numbers can indicate something, but to paraphrase Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, I do not think numbers mean what the marketing people think it means.
For example, I have a higher Klout score than NYT best-selling author James Rollins. I don’t for a second think that means I’d be able to sell more books than him. I have more Twitter followers than many best-selling authors. I wouldn’t expect to sell as many books as they have simply because of that fact.
That’s my point. If I decided to self-publish, I wouldn’t make assumptions about my sales based on my numbers. That would be a stupid business decision. And yet that’s exactly what some publishers are doing.
Let’s take a look at two self-published authors I know. Author A has 3 1/2 times the number of Twitter followers of author B. A’s blog is mega-popular; B’s blog is small potatoes. A’s stratosphere-high Klout score is 19 points higher than B’s excellent score.
Guess which one sold more? A lot more? B did.
Why? Because the words do matter more than the numbers. B’s story resonated with people. They read the story and loved it. They told others about it.
What Publishers Need to Understand
Word of mouth is what sells books. Not direct selling.
And authors cannot do their own word of mouth. So the numbers of the author don’t matter as much as the numbers of those who spread the word for them.
The marketing folk don’t like that reality though, because they can’t measure it. Instead they’d rather latch onto the meaningless with fingers in their ears.
I get it. Long round-ish numbers are sexy, all their smooth curves and open circles. But just as a man can’t tell if a woman will be a good wife by the curves of her hips, a publisher can’t tell if a writer will sell well by the curvy zeros of their follower numbers.
Now we have to hope publishers learn this lesson before putting themselves out of business. The divorce settlement between abandoned authors and publishers would leave them both broke.
Do you disagree with me? Do you think social media numbers can be used to predict sales? Do you think agents are enabling publisher’s delusions by playing along, or are they doing the best they can in an impossible situation? Do you have any suggestions for how to correct publisher’s misunderstanding of how social media works? If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would you change?Pin It