October 20, 2011

The Insanity Behind the Pressure to Have “Numbers”

Screen filled with ones and zeroes

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

If you’ve read my post from last week, you know my opinion of how selling books is not about social media numbers.  So…  I ranted.

“[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?

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Comments — What do you think?

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India Drummond

I agree with you 100%. What many authors are starting to realise is that blogs and twitter don’t sell books. Meanwhile, the publishing industry is saying, “Ooh, blogs! Everyone should have one.” as though they’d just discovered that such a thing exists. (Blogs and Twitter are great for a lot of things, but NOT for selling books.)

Reason #45 why self-publishing was the right path for me. I can be my own numbers person AND my own words person, and I know when to listen to each of them–and when to tell them to sit down and be quiet.

Manon Eileen

A great post, Jami, and I agree with you all the way.


Right on target, Jami. Thanks for spelling it out so eloquently!

I’m still not ready to take the self-pub route (more me-out-there than I can handle right now), but the oft-repeated numbers game played by traditional publishers is certainly depressing.

PW Creighton

Exceptional post Jami. Although, I’m not quite sure I would be quite as bold as to rant on Rachel’s blog. You certainly earned a purple heart. 🙂 While we could’ve looked on in horror at the numbers-people in the past, today is a much different world. Content is king. An indie author that does everything right can easily blast past the numbers oriented publishers. As Bob Mayer has been saying, Authors are the modern gatekeepers. Our work and capabilities are stronger than ever. It’s always been on us but numbers aren’t it. Numbers, metrics, help give us guidance but that’s not the measure of success. Writing is like social media, our measurements are qualitative not quantitative.

Sarah Pearson

Thank you for putting into words what I’ve been clutching at since I started reading all about this stuff.

Jami's Tech Guy (Jay)

Oh great Jami, now everyone is going to see my horns instead of my halo gently resting on top of them.

Seriously though, it is a very good and bold post. The publishers had to have seen big changes coming to their business model for years. Their equivalents in music (RIAA) and then movies (MPAA) have been battling change with different results. But sadly, it seems book publishers took a mostly ‘head-in-sand’ approach to the changes instead of being bold about this new world. (So far the best approach to technology has been the MPAA who started releasing DVD’s with additional content so consumers would feel they were getting better bang for their entertainment buck.)

Instead you see publishers like Penguin suing authors who self-publish their backlist.


Michele Shaw

Great post, Jami. I agree with you. I read Rachelle’s blog the other day, and it really depressed me. I have (what I consider to be) a fairly large Twitter following, but I don’t think all of them would buy a book of mine. I hope those I count as friends will help me spread the word as I am more than happy to do the same for them, and if nothing else, I just appreciate their moral support. That’s really what it’s all about. (for me) As I’ve said before, if I put even more time into sm, I won’t be writing. I’d rather write.


Excellent post, Jami, summarizing an issue that people just can’t seem to agree on. I doubt very much that your comments and email exchange with Rachelle hurt your chances of anything, because agents are fast losing the power they’ve held on writers for the past couple decades. Maybe that’s why so many of them are promoting this idea? That being online doesn’t really help you? Because being online is a huge help to writers and is opening doors for them in a major way, possibly threatening the agents’ livelihoods in the process?

Jen J. Danna

Your tweet on Tuesday brought the comment section of Rachelle’s blog to my attention. I’d read her post first thing in the morning and was discouraged by it’s message, but I hadn’t looked at the comments. What an eye opener. First of all, kudos to you for making a rational and logical argument all while remaining respectful and polite. Brava!

Nice Inigo Montoya reference. That made me smile… 🙂

I very much agree with your argument. Having a social media platform is important and is a great way of getting us out there, but the book is really the most important aspect of our lives as authors. I’m sure publishers aren’t just looking at the numbers, but when you are talking proposals (either non-fiction or the standard fiction proposal of a synopsis + 50 pages), they don’t have a lot of words to base their decision. And I’m afraid that they might put too much faith in numbers that just don’t carry as much weight as they would give them.

Thanks for a thought provoking discussion and for stepping in to lead the charge.

Laura Pauling

That post upset me too but for slightly different reasons. For me it was one more piece of advice that seems so contradictory out there. A lot of writers that I observe that do well and sell big – have small blogs and barely tweet. So that tells me it’s not just about the numbers, even with publishers. That some companies recognize a great story, see some web presence and go for it. Or authors grew to have big numbers after they became a best seller.

So I agree, numbers don’t predict selling. A great story will. I also know a self pubbed author, who is agented, that is doing very well. She barely blogs or tweets. Social media got the ball rolling but the great story took over.

I’ve also seen big bloggers with wide influence not able to get a book deal, so clearly, it’s about more than just numbers.

So given all I see, I don’t understand where Rachelle’s post came from. I think it was misinterpreted. The subtext behind that post said to me – you need these numbers if you want to get published. But later she said that’s not what she meant, so yes, I do think her post was taken the wrong way – by most people.

Alivia Anders

Jami, your post speaks volumes. It’s depressing to see and know that publishing houses, and the community as a whole, think that just because you have a 50k following base on Twitter means you’re going to sell millions of copies of your book, CD, audio-tape, what have you. But like your ‘white-hat’ hacker buddy said, it doesn’t take much to fake those numbers. Hell, even for less of what he proposed I could have one of my techie friends from HS do all of that work and then some! This is why it doesn’t matter if you have the biggest following in the world. What matters is the passion behind it AND the story. I truly believe both have to go hand-in-hand. If you love something, you’ll do anything for it, and when your item, be it CD or book or painting, is great, it fuels your fire and ultimately others too. I love to use JK Rowling as an example because to me she is THE example. This woman loved her story, cultivated and loved her characters like children, and you saw it in the pages, in the detail of her craft, and how she pushed for her book against every odd. She didn’t have those numbers, but someone saw a great chance in her story and wanted to push for it, too. They felt her fire. And that’s how it goes. You have passion for something great, people will see it and want to know more. Numbers mean…  — Read More »


If my time writing web content has taught me anything, it’s that conversion rates matter a whole lot more than numbers. Someone who can get their message to 200 people with a 50% conversion rate is doing a whole lot better than someone who can get their message to 20k people and have a 0.5% conversation rate, even though the numbers are the same.

Why? Because that 20k person is doing something wrong. Someone who’s “only” reached 200 people doesn’t have to stretch so far to find more; someone who’s already reached 20k has to look further.


In that first paragraph, by “even though the numbers are the same”, I’m talking about the sales numbers. Both examples sell 100 widgets.

Pamela V. Mason

And so I’ve decided to ignore the agents, the editors, the publishing houses and all the other contradictory advice they dish out, and go my own way.
I’m not one to burn bridges, but I’m also not going to waste my time jumping through prescribed hoops, only to have the hoop holder require even more. It’s a shame how manipulated the whole publishing world – traditional as well as indie epub’d – has become via networks, blogs, scores, tags, lists, yadayadayada.
The gold nugget of your post is “Word of mouth sells books.”
I’ve decided to concentrate on my work, my community, my online presence as far as my words as whom I associate with –
Quality over Quantity
Thanks for throwing yourself under the bus for the rest of us here Jami! If anything else, you’ve made a positive impression in the agents’ – and us lowly wordslaves’ – eyes.

Elle Strauss
Elle Strauss

I love how you’re not afraid to get into it–good for you!!

Melinda Collins

Great post, Jami! I had some mixed feelings over Rachelle’s post myself, though I didn’t get on there and express it like I should have….guess I let it fester a little instead. But kudos for stepping up, girl! I’m like you, I respect Rachelle and enjoy her blog a lot, but that post was a bit of a shocker for me too (at least until she explained what she really meant). What bothered me was a mix between what you’re so eloquently stating, and what Laura has stated above: It’s truly about the words and the writing! There are successul authors out there who do *not* have a blog and/or Twitter, and they’re still selling the heck outta some books! Those are the mixed feelings I had, and I have to say, it got me a little conflicted so I had to stew on it a bit. If it conflicted me – because all new writers hear that you really don’t *need* a blog – then I *know* it conflicted other writers who are just starting their journey into becoming a published author one day. Self-publishing really isn’t for me, so I’m looking forward to working with a publisher one day – hopefully soon, right? 🙂 – and it is extremely disappointing and scary to read posts/articles that state the marketing departments in publishing houses are telling editors ‘no’ on offering contracts simply because the #’s aren’t there – even though the book itself was phenomenal. Like you said, publishing…  — Read More »

Gene Lempp

Having spent the past 15 years of my life working for one of the largest PR firms on the planet I can attest to the fact that PR & Marketing are all about facade. Perception is the King and do not bother to tell him that the new suit he bought is really just air or he will get very upset and have your head mounted on a pike. Better to be naked and publicly humiliated then to admit being wrong. It is sad. It is true. I mentioned in a comment here last week that true influence cannot be measured. That statement is based on my years of experience. Here is an example of true influence. Kristen Lamb, Social Media Jedi Master of Writers, works hard to build her audience. She cares about them. She posts relevant and visceral material that everyone can relate to. She wraps it in her own self-deprecating humor that puts all of us at ease. On Twitter and Facebook she is personable, helpful, super cool. If she said to me, Gene try this out, it would carry a considerable amount of weight because my opinion of her is high and she has done everything to prove she deserves that opinion. I’m 99% likely to take the advice as a result. Marketing cannot quantify this individual to individual influence and that is the heart of the matter. Therefore, they take what they can quantify, even it is meaningless and use it to build a facade…  — Read More »



Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly

I’ve been rethinking this a bit, and I might be diverting from other folk as far as social media. In traditional marketing, I suspect two things sell books. First, the book needs to be places where people buy books, and it needs to be visible. So where do people buy books? Amazon, B&B, and some brick&mortal stores. So ya gotta get the book to come up when people do Amazon searches, when people buy similar books, and so on. And ya gotta simply be in brick&mortar stores. Second, you need mindshare. You need to be more interesting than the other millions of books out there. Social networking is part of that, but I’m starting to doubt that it’s as relevant as people seem to think. Twitter, blogs and facebook pages? I’ve thumbed through the friends lists of various authors, and honestly, a fair portion of the folk are fellow writers. And the rest seem to be hard-core fans. Blogs? Hardcore fans and writers. Review sites? Hardcore fans of the genre. To really sell, you need to break out of that hardcore fan box. Personal recommendations from friends? I don’t get them often. I’ve perhaps seen them once a year on facebook. I’ve only received recommendations in bookstores by the owner, or from friends. And those friends simply hand me a book, which doesn’t result in an immediate sale, but may result in a fan. Perhaps in other demographics (YA), things are different, but for mid-list authors, I just don’t hear…  — Read More »

Laurie London

I missed out on all of this yesterday, so I’m glad you brought it to my attention.

“My disagreement is with those publishers who think ability to sell books (i.e., platform) can be measured by social media numbers.”

I agree with you, Jami. Good social media numbers can’t be counted on to translate into sales. Just looking at my own buying decisions, I don’t think I’ve ever bought a book by authors whose blogs I follow regularly. Sad, but true. Words matter, social media numbers do not. I may connect with them online and think they’re delightful people, but if what they write isn’t my cup of tea, I won’t buy it.

Regarding Klout, I have a pretty decent Klout score, much higher than a lot of authors. Does that mean I sell more books than them? Uh, no. I think it’s because most book buyers are people are like me. Words matter. Uber social media numbers do not.

Elizabeth Mueller

One can easily get lost in all of this. I worry so much about the numbers to the point that my shoulders feel like rocks. I agree with you though, I could have 2,000 followers yet have only 3 comments post a day over at my blog. What about someone who has 200 followers and has 50 comments a day? I’d go with the smaller number with more traffic, wouldn’t you?

And I agree, one author, by word of mouth, is dang HARD to get the word out. I try to motivate my followers by sharing my booty with them. Event that’s hard, too! I think every author needs a personal PR, but alas, some of us aren’t lucky enough to have one.

I enjoyed your post, thanks for keeping it real.

Elizabeth Mueller

*booty as in swag, LOL 😉

Lynn Kelley

Bravo, Jami! Excellent points and I agree 100%. And yay for your cool tech guy!


[…] I read this blog post by Jami Gold that says a lot of what I’ve often ranted about with social media and the illusion […]

Stacy Green

Thanks for stepping up to defend the rest of us, so to speak. I’ve decided that while I’m still going to query agents, my focus probably going to be on digital publishing. I’m not ready to self-publish yet, but it’s an option. But after reading Rachelle’s post, I kind of wondered why I was even bothering, you know? Marketing is something I’m trying to learn, but I don’t think I could ever come close to having the numbers the Bigs want you to.

Thanks for this post. It definitely helped!

Teresa Robeson

I just want to say that depressing as all this focus on numbers is, your post have given me much hope that I could still make it if I just penned a good enough book. Thanks!

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