Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Writing question: promoting one’s work among friends and family

A reader asks: 

“Dear Ed, what do you think about writers promoting their books among friends/relatives, and encouraging friends and family members to write reviews of their books?”

My answer here is pretty definitive: I don’t do it, for a variety of reasons, which I’ll enumerate below.

1.) My friend who started selling real estate ten years ago. I had a friend from my college days who, in his mid-30s, decided to shed the shackles of corporate life and become a real estate agent.

This is in itself was fine, of course. I’m all for people leaving the cubicle farm and finding their own way.

However, my friend also believed that everyone he knew, was related to, or had ever known had been automatically drafted into his unpaid marketing team. This part was a problem.

Henceforth, every conversation with him became a “Do you know anyone who is looking to sell their house?” conversation.

Within a few years, it was, “Gee, you haven’t forwarded me any real estate contacts in a while!”

He used to call me to catch up with personal matters. Now he was calling me to “see if I had my ears to the ground, and if I’d caught wind of anything.”

My old friend had become a smarmy real estate agent, twenty-four hours per day.

This was before I started writing commercially, of course. But I didn't enjoy friendly conversations that almost immediately turned into sales pitches. This is one reason why I never push my books on friends and relatives, and rarely even talk about them in personal situations. I always think of my old friend who sold real estate. I don't want to become that guy.

2.) Five-star shill reviews don’t sell books. If you’ve spent much time on Amazon (the main market for anyone starting out as an author, as first-time authors and self-published authors generally don’t make it onto the shelves of Wal-Mart), then you’ve seen shill reviews.

These are usually very brief, and are filled with generic superlatives. (“The greatest horror novel since The Stand! Watch out, Stephen King!”)

Shill reviews usually don’t demonstrate much knowledge of the book’s contents (except for the fact that it’s “the greatest ever!”) because in many cases, the reviewer hasn’t actually read it. He or she is simply fulfilling an unwanted obligation to “write a review and help get the word out” for a friend who is a writer.

Shill reviews are readily transparent to most real readers, and a slew of them can harm a book’s sales more than a small number of reviews—or even zero reviews. When I see an Amazon book page that contains a dozen one-paragraph 5-star reviews, I immediately conclude that they aren’t legitimate, but the results of an author pestering friends and family.

A dozen 5-star reviews also represents a violation of the laws of physics, as the manifest in publishing world. Almost every book receives a distribution of 5-, 4-, 3-, 2-, and yes—even 1-star reviews.

One-star reviews don’t necessarily sink a book’s chances in the marketplace—unless there are a dozen 1-star reviews and no positive ones. But a dozen 5-star shill reviews can be almost as bad.

3.) Not all of your friends and relatives are interested in your book. In fact, the odds are very great that many of them won’t be. Reading tastes tend to be highly specific. Some people rarely read books, others don’t read at all.

You may have written what you consider to be the world’s greatest cookbook, paranormal romance, or science fiction thriller. Now suppose I’m your friend, and you want me to read and review it for you.

Well, I never read cookbooks, paranormal romances—nor much science fiction, either. And I read a lot. I just don’t like to read in those categories.

Don’t pressure your friends and relatives into spending their leisure time reading your book, when they’d rather be playing Grand Theft Auto or watching pro football. Instead, focus on finding readers among the wider population who are already interested in reading cookbooks, paranormal romances, or science fiction thrillers. (That’s a topic for another essay, of course—or ten other essays.)

4.) Your friends and relatives represent a very small market, anyway. How many cousins, aunts and uncles do you have? How many bowling buddies and high school classmates who still answer your emails?

Few of us know more than a hundred people really well. Most know far fewer. To expend a lot of time and effort pushing your books on this number doesn't represent an efficient use of your time—unless a substantial number of them maintain well-trafficked blogs that regularly review books. (And this, of course, is statistically unlikely.)

*   *   *
That’s what I think about marketing your books to your friends and family. So how do these beliefs/distinctions show up in my behavior?

Nowadays, a large portion of my writing life, as well as my personal life, has an online element. I keep the two almost completely separated.

My Facebook presence is for maintaining relationships with old classmates and more recently developed friendships. I don’t write Facebook posts about my books, with rare exceptions.

For example, earlier this year my book about the Middle East was prominently recognized by a well-established blog/website. I did make a note about that on Facebook, as that qualified as the sort of “significant life event/achievement” that other people post on Facebook all the time.

But I don’t post excerpts of my books there, or anything else that falls under the rubric of general marketing.

Once in a while a post from this blog will find its way to my Facebook page, if I think it’s something that my Facebook friends would find interesting and relevant. I posted my September 30 piece “Some thoughts about grandparents” on Facebook, and a number of my friends liked it. But it was presented as a personal post on Facebook, not as an advertisement for my books or my blog. Only a handful of my Facebook friends were aware that it originally appeared on my blog.

My Blogger, YouTube, and Amazon presences, on the other hand, are where I promote my books.

While very little of my content on these sites takes the form of explicit commercials, I reserve the right to occasionally plug my latest novel or post a 1,000-word excerpt of an upcoming book. That’s a big part of why I’m here, after all—although I welcome those readers who are interested solely in my online content, as well.

But if you show up here, then the odds are great that you probably aren’t an old classmate or someone who I worked with in 1995. You probably came here because of a Google search or an incoming hyperlink.

The price of admission is that you might (occasionally) find yourself on the receiving end of a brief sales pitch for a new book. There are, to be sure, people on the Internet who object to any sort of a commercial message, under any set of circumstances. But those are criticisms I’m willing to cheerfully ignore.

Once in a while one of my real-life, offline friends will happen across one of my commercial spaces, either by Googling me, or by Googling a topic that I’ve written about. When this occurs, I certainly don’t deny that it’s me, but I don’t turn it into a sales situation, either.

As I recently told one of my friends who asked about my books, “Yes, I write books. If you’re interested, you can find them at Amazon. But I’m not going to pressure you into reading them. That’s completely up to you.”

(Once again, I recall my old friend the real estate agent.)

When you are first starting out, it is tempting to see friends and relatives as your first potential readers. However, this is usually bad form, and seldom results in many book sales, anyway.

In closing, I especially encourage you to beware the 5-star shill reviews. You really can’t fool legitimate readers this way.

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