Sunday, December 9, 2012

Novelists and Internet strategies

The other day another novelist asked me for a summary of my thoughts regarding fiction authors and online promotional strategies...

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It goes without saying that every novelist should have an Internet presence. But not all strategies are equal. 

There are two high-level, strategic ways for authors to think about Internet strategy.

First there is what I call the "basic merchandising and promotion strategy."  

This means that at the minimal level, your work should be listed online, in some format that readers can both sample and purchase

These bare-bones requirements can be met simply by having your book listed on Amazon, and equipped with the "search inside the book" feature. 

If you are willing to expend a bit more effort (what I consider to be the real minimum level), you should also have an independent Web presence with a listing of your books and more reading samples. 

This is what practically every fiction author does, from John Grisham and Stephen King on down.

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Then there is what I call the "Internet personality strategy." When you successfully implement this strategy, your online efforts take on a life of their own, independent of your fiction. 

At present, most of the writers who succeed with this strategy are in the nonfiction and science fiction realms.

Seth Godin is a business author. He also maintains a heavily trafficked business strategy blog. The blog definitely serves to promote Godin's books; but it is not explicitly promotional, in the same way that John Grisham's website is. 

Godin updates his blog on a daily basis (Grisham updates his website only when he has a new novel out); and he seldom makes a direct reference to one of his books (though they are strategically pictured and hyperlinked in the left margin.)

Likewise, science fiction author Cory Doctorow is heavily engaged in various aspects of online culture. He is an active blogger who posts daily on at least two blog sites. Doctorow is a science fiction author; but one could argue that he is an Internet personality first and foremost.

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Which one should an author choose? At first glance, some version of the Seth Godin/Cory Doctorow strategies might seem optimal. This would mean that authors can best succeed by spending a lot of time tweeting, blogging, and making videos on YouTube.

Not necessarily. The fact is that few bestselling authors are "fully engaged" in online culture. For example, almost no bestselling novelists maintain YouTube channels. A relatively small number are regular bloggers.

On the other hand, there are many active and successful bloggers who enjoy only mediocre book sales, relative to their online activity. 

Much of this can be attributed to opportunity costs. Blogging, tweeting, podcasting, and video blogging are enormous time sinks. This time might be better spent writing books. For many novelists, frequent blogging, tweeting, etc. are fragmenting rather than productive activities.

More importantly, though, not every author has the platform needed to become a full-blown Internet personality. Doctorow and Godin are both capable of producing large amounts of "Internet-friendly" non-fiction subject matter. 

Godin's business blog is focused on online marketing. The target market for his blog posts (and books) therefore spends a lot of time online. Likewise, science fiction readers (as opposed to readers of Westerns, romance novels, or historical fiction) have a higher than average level of online engagement.

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When selecting an online strategy, consider your own strengths and weaknesses. Don't automatically assume that "the more you blog, the more books you'll sell." 

For better or worse, not every author can become an Internet personality. Such authors can still use the Internet to promote their work, but they will rapidly reach the point of diminishing returns when blogging, podcasting, and engaging with other forms of social media.