Issue #53, Fall 2014
"Platforms" Are Overrated
Between the Lines
"Platforms" Are Overrated
Any author starting out today is likely to hear the same advice from agents, publishers, and even well-meaning writer friends. That advice? Build your “platform.”
As a recent MFA graduate who’s wading into the world of publishing, I’ve been counseled to start a blog, scare up a couple thousand Facebook friends, consider Twitter. This pressure to promote myself, in addition to writing a book and working full-time, could break my will, make me consider giving up writing altogether. Except that my full-time job is at an ad agency, and for the last six of the almost twenty years I’ve been in this business, I’ve worked at a company that specializes in digital media. So I feel lucky to recognize this advice about “platform building” for what it is: bullshit.
Conventional wisdom in the publishing industry suggests that a robust online presence, maintained by an author, will compensate for a non-existent marketing budget and that some uncoachable mix of wit and digital luck can propel an author from obscurity to fame. The reality is that successful online marketing, just like successful offline marketing, is driven by money. A social media presence with no cash behind it doesn’t do much for the average author when it comes to selling books, and squandering precious hours on building a platform that few people will ever see—hours that could otherwise be spent writing—is a mistake that can hurt your productivity and, therefore, your career.
Let’s look at the numbers, starting with author pages on Facebook. If you have a brand (in this context, you, dear author, are the brand) page that you don’t support with paid media, almost nobody sees your posts. According to research by Social@Ogilvy, which was recently published in Advertising Age, a mere 6.15 percent of fans (people who like a page) see each organic (unpaid) post from a brand. This percentage goes down the more fans you have: if you have a wildly successful author page, with over 500,000 fans (like, say, John Grisham or Danielle Steel, both of whom have more than one million fans), only 2.11 percent of your fans will see your posts. This percentage is expected to drop to zero as Facebook moves aggressively to make money from advertisers. Facebook aims to operate financially much like television networks, with advertisers keeping the content/functionality free for the general public. That’s good news for us as individuals using Facebook for personal reasons, but bad news for us as authors trying to sell our books with no marketing budgets. The bottom line is that managing a separate author page—unless you or your publisher is paying to build your fan base and promote posts to your fans—is almost a complete waste of your time, especially when you consider the number of books you can expect to sell.
Ah, yes, and how many books can you expect to sell? Even if you pay to play, the numbers are small. Maybe your agent says you need a thousand fans on your author page to help her shop your book. So you create an author page and manage to get two hundred friends from your personal page to “like” your author page. You don’t have time or the necessary exposure to find those additional eight hundred fans before the manuscript goes out, so you spend some cash. About one thousand dollars and six weeks later, you hit the magic number.
The reality is that successful online marketing, just like successful offline marketing, is driven by money.
What does this do for sales when you’re finally ready to release your book? There’s limited public data on return-on-investment on Facebook, but we can use old-school direct marketing numbers as a proxy. As a rule of thumb, a good response rate on direct marketing efforts is 1 percent. If you reach all one thousand fans of your author page no fewer than three times with an announcement of your book release, and include a link to Amazon, you could reasonably expect ten of them to buy your book. That’s right: ten. But we know that only 6 percent of your fans will see each post to begin with; so, to ensure that your fans even know about your book release, you will have to promote yourself to them relentlessly. Mercilessly. To the point that they begin to unfriend you, or at least hide your feed.
Alternatively, you can spend more money. I asked the digital media expert at my agency what a rough media budget for advertising a book on Facebook could look like. He said the least wasteful approach is to pay for “cost-per-click” advertising; that is, you pay only when somebody is interested enough to click on a link you provide. He estimated a relatively high cost per click—two dollars—to advertise a book effectively. (You want to pay for visibility among the right people—say, serious readers with an interest in memoir. It’s less expensive for advertisers who’ve got a more universal target, like, say, women who eat chocolate. Unfortunately, memoir readers aren’t quite that ubiquitous.) A reasonable, expected conversion rate on cost-per-click advertising—even well-targeted advertising, in which the only people who see it are likely to be receptive to your book—is, again, 1 percent. Put another way, to sell one book, you’d need one hundred clicks at two dollars a pop. Wait, what was your royalty payment on that book? And let’s not even think about the hours you spent crafting posts for your author page.
Clearly, there are economies of scale that make it worthwhile for brands and authors with large fan bases to advertise on Facebook. If there weren’t, nobody would do it, and Facebook’s IPO wouldn’t have been the biggest in Internet history. A working example: a mid-tier client brand at my agency, with more than a million Facebook fans, conducted return-on-investment research on their Facebook spend, which, including the cost of content development and paid advertising, was in the neighborhood of half a million dollars. The research revealed that they earned approximately $1.50 for every dollar spent. So, if you’re a best-selling author like Dan Brown and have the potential to amass six million fans, or even like John Grisham with one million fans, it’s worth it to spend real time and money creating and promoting content on Facebook. But for the rest of us, it’s not.
Blogging is another frequently recommended marketing tool for authors. However, there’s almost no real data available on the effectiveness of blogging. There are many glowing anecdotal reports from small business owners, who say that blogging is the most effective digital tool for finding new customers—but also the most time-intensive and, therefore, the hardest to execute and maintain. Spending twenty hours blogging every month is worth it if you’re selling something expensive and high-margin, like consulting services, and if you can feed yourself from the proceeds. It’s not worth it if you’re selling books. If, in a year, you sell five thousand books for $15 each, with a royalty payment of 6 percent, you will earn $4,500. At twenty hours a month for twelve months, that’s 240 hours a year spent to make $4,500. That’s $18 an hour for your time. Which isn’t too bad—if you’re willing to consider the time you spent actually writing the book a total loss. You can also forget about writing a second book; you’re not going to have the time for that, what with maintaining your blog and working that other job you’ll obviously need. Even if you’re working full-time as an author and have multiple properties to sell, it still might not be worth it to blog in terms of the time loss.
There’s really only one good reason to invest time and effort in blogging: if you have an idea for a blog compelling enough to lead to a book deal. I recently heard both an agent at a literary conference and a sales rep from Tumblr at an advertising event mention Greg Pembroke. Pembroke got a book deal based on his (hilarious) “Reasons My Son Is Crying” Tumblr posts. (Tumblr is a short-form blogging platform, which can be great fun. However, content posted on Tumblr is owned by the whole community; your posts can be remixed, radically edited, and re-blogged by anybody. If something you write goes viral, it can be almost impossible to link it back to you. It won’t necessarily do anything to raise your visibility.)
There are many examples of books emerging from blogs—my personal favorite is the New York Times bestseller Cake Wrecks, based on the blog of the same name, by Jen Yates—but these success stories are all based on a particular paradigm: the authors’ digital works were their primary forms of expression. The blogs came first and got the authors’ creative energy. The books came later. For most of us MFA types, the books come first. The blogs are a publishing industry marketing suggestion, a means to an end.
That brings us to Twitter, which is probably an author’s best option as a digital marketing tool, if only because it’s less of a time-suck than other platforms when it comes to generating content. When I spoke to a Twitter sales representative about the effectiveness of Twitter in driving sales for authors, he was notably reserved. He said that while Twitter has strong communities of authors, it does not have strong communities of readers and fans. Twitter allows writers to monitor and participate in the intellectual life of the publishing community. It’s conducive to one-on-one interactions with people in the industry and can quickly generate goodwill. But the sales metrics are likely no better than any other direct marketing or social media platform, with or without paid support.
So, here’s the question: why are so many people squawking at us about our platforms if the numbers are so bad? To get some industry insight, I reached out to an author who has published extensively with Amazon Publishing (four books, two different imprints). I chose her because Amazon knows. It doesn’t matter what you think of Amazon’s role in the publishing industry. Their true business is numbers; that’s what drives their success. The advice they gave to my author friend (who spoke on the condition of anonymity, per her contract with Amazon): write more. Don’t waste time on social media. The single biggest factor in whether or not you sell books is whether or not you write books.
Why are so many people squawking at us about our platforms if the numbers are so bad?
But telling agents and editors that their marketing advice is terrible won’t bring a manuscript any closer to publication. So what can you do? Forget about blogging altogether, unless you have an idea for a blog that can translate directly into an idea for a book. Forget about an author page on Facebook; you need to spend money to guarantee people will even see it. Instead, consider leveraging personal social media habits on either Twitter or Facebook until they’re substantial enough to qualify as a platform in the eyes of agents and publishers.
Twitter is the best place to start. If you’re diligent about following agents, publishers, and fellow authors, and about commenting on relevant conversations, you can build a meaningful personal network in the same amount of time you already spend goofing off online. The Twitter representative I spoke to suggested using Topsy, a Twitter Search, Monitoring, and Analytics Tool, to find and join the conversations most relevant to the industry and to you personally. You can use the most basic level of Topsy for free.
You can also leverage your personal Facebook page. You’re limited to a maximum number of friends—five thousand—but you can have unlimited followers. When you get articles or essays published, suggest in your bio that people “follow you on Facebook.” You may not want to share every post with everybody, and there are a number of ways to manage that, making content visible to certain subsets of people. Facebook doesn’t allow individuals to promote their posts in the same aggressive way that brands can, although research conducted by Stanford University researcher Michael Bernstein suggests that a higher percentage of people see posts from an individual than from an author/brand to begin with. You can pay seven dollars to promote a personal post, and Facebook will provide a graph that tells you what percentage of your friends saw the post organically versus those who saw it because it was paid.
The logistics of this are easy enough. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that if you decide to use Facebook and Twitter as marketing tools, your social media accounts become “owned media,” assets that are part of your personal brand. That means you may need to take a slightly more deliberate approach to the content you post.
One author whose Facebook approach I admire is Benjamin Percy, author of The Wilding and Red Moon. I originally friended Ben because he was a professor in my low-residency MFA program, and I found his craft talks to be useful, fun, and memorable. His Facebook posts, which he shares with nearly 4,500 friends, are similarly appealing. They always make me smile; they often make me laugh out loud. From a professional marketing and branding perspective, his content is superior, so I asked him for his point of view on Facebook. His answer was (unsurprisingly) so thoughtful, and so useful, that I’m sharing it almost in full here:
I see it as an extension of my time at the desk and classroom and stage at festivals/conferences. I never post more than once a day, and when I do post, I try to balance out the personal and professional because I don’t want everyone to feel spammed: I’m trying to entertain. So even when I’m writing something personal, it’s not really personal. I would never post “Gee, it’s raining again” or “I’m thinking about having spaghetti tonight” or “Argh, it’s so annoying when people cut you off in traffic.” Some people take a stream-of-consciousness approach to Facebook, but I view it as a performance. People tune in for a laugh or a gasp—and then, only if you’ve earned it, they’ll tolerate some promotion.
This may seem to fly in the face of that other advice writers are regularly given about social media, which is to “be natural, speak like you’re talking to a friend.” For one thing, writers don’t typically need advice on tone and voice. It’s kind of what we do. Beyond that, a community of people who will buy your books is a community of people who, besides sharing your interests, see you as an authority on those subjects. Just own that authority, because false humility is annoying.
Not all of us are as naturally entertaining as Ben Percy, and turning a presence on Facebook and Twitter into a platform requires effort. But there are measures you can take to make it easier. Spend some time thinking about what the purpose of your presence is—beyond marketing your book (although the purpose of your presence should probably be grounded in the themes of your book.) Based on your purpose, decide in advance what kind of content you want to post. For clients trying to maximize a big Facebook spend, Facebook recommends three types of content for every brand page. The same thinking applies here. For example, if you’re a woman who’s written a coming-of-age memoir dealing with body image and sexuality, and you decide your purpose on social media is to promote a dialogue around these issues, your three pillars of content for Facebook and Twitter could be: 1. Body image and female sexuality in the news, and your reaction to such stories; 2. Other writers/books who cover this, or similar territory, well; and 3. Positive representations of female sexuality in the media. Content creation may seem easiest for the nonfiction writer, but if you’re a fiction writer or poet, you should still be able to build content based on the themes you deal with, issues of craft, or even current events that intersect with your writing in some way. Once you’ve decided on your content pillars, take the time, maybe once a month or once a quarter, to create an editorial calendar and plan some posts in advance. This will allow you to be consistent without feeling daily stress.
Let’s be clear. This is work—necessary work, perhaps, when it comes to finding an agent and shopping a book—but it isn’t more important and necessary than the book itself, and you shouldn’t spend any time doing it unless the book you’ve written is already as good as it can be. It’s an ad industry truism that nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising, and that certainly applies here. Multiple agents might respond to your query letter in part because you’ve got such an outstanding social media platform, but they won’t end up representing you if your book is mediocre as a result of your having spent hours building a presence on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook instead of writing.
When you have to make a choice about how to spend your writing time, choose your book first. Every. Single. Time. To approach your writing career any other way is a mistake.
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