Talking Story



For the price of a comic book, anyone can buy thousands of new fan page likes or followers on social media services like Facebook or Twitter. Most of these likes and followers are not real people; they exist only as ones and zeros in computer code. But to the casual observer, it’s tough to tell the difference.

As an author if you’re happy writing what you’re writing for the audience that finds you, the idea of  paying for fake followers doesn’t make sense. Most likely, you find the idea offensive because it smacks of cheating–kinda like jumping to the head of a really long line to win a fabulous prize. You feel your best strategy is to slowly build a following by word of mouth, hoping to catch that lightning in bottle that eludes most authors, but are totally okay if you don’t.

God bless you; you are the Hufflepuffs of the world and we need you.

But while at first blush the idea of authors paying for social media followers seems like nerdy kids bribing the cool kids with cookies, the truth is much more complicated. There are some sound reasons why Slytherin and Ravenclaw authors might consider a more Machiavellian approach.

(Gryffindors, of course, are the outliers, the one in a million social media phenomenons, the exceptions that prove the rule. We all want to believe we’re Gryffindors, but the world’s sorting hat begs to differ.)

In the past I’ve compared social media marketing to a stadium full of people shouting at each other and to popularity contests in high school where the cool kids are identified by the attendant herd of wannabees. Now I’m combining these two analogies to make a different point.

Relax. It’s story time. Cue the typewriter sound effects and bring down the house lights.

Dateline: Smallberg , America. Joe Football is Smallberg High’s biggest star, the brightest since his cousin Bob Football took the team to their only division championship in 1997. Smallberg High’s season record is hot and word is that Big State is sending a recruiter to take a look. We all know how Joe plays in the next game can determine whether he gets a dream scholarship to Big State U or enrolls in Smallberg JC next fall.

What we don’t know is that Big State’s recruiter isn’t just watching the field, he’s watching the fans. Are the bleachers full? Are people excited when Joe makes a big play? How many are wearing his number, rocking it with the cheerleaders, and waving Smallberg High banners? How many fans are going to follow Joe’s career to college and how many season ticket holders is he likely to inspire to pony up for next year’s roster?

As much as Joe Football thinks it’s all about his rapid-fire passes and nimble footwork, the Big State recruiter’s looking at a much bigger picture.

Game day, the weather’s glorious, but the stands are unusually empty because most of the townsfolk are at the Kiwanis Club, crossing their fingers, rubbing their lucky charms, and hoping they hold the golden ticket for the shiny new car about to be raffled in the club’s annual fundraiser. When the Big State recruiter enters the stands, finding a seat isn’t a problem.

The coaches sigh. They know that the bar for Joe’s scholarship just got set higher, as in every-play-has-to-make-a-highlight-reel higher. After all, Joe can’t be all that if no one’s watching.

Let’s take a step back. What if Joe Football’s father asked the Kiwanis Club president to announce the winning ticket at half-time? Now when the recruiter arrives not only is most of the town at the stadium, people are spilling out into the parking lot. It’s standing room only.

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

But like a late night tv ad for Ginsu knives, wait! There’s more.

What if Bigger State keeps tabs on who Big State recruiters watch?

What if most Bigger State players go pro?

How silly does Joe’s father look now?

In our analytic-metric-statistic-loving-bean-counting world, this is the conventional wisdom and logic that drives a lot of really amazing writers to buy likes and followers. Their work is good, but at a certain professional point all the writing’s good. Smallberg authors think Big State agents and publishers want to sign the popular player whose number of fan page likes and followers are trending up. Way up. We believe it because publishers and agents tell us so.

Publishers want authors to engage people through social media because they believe it boosts visibility in the marketplace which leads to book sales. It’s the holy grail of free advertising. Everyone can point to a Gryffindor for whom this worked fantastically. After all, someone always wins the lotto, right?

In the world of social media and viral marketing, if everybody’s liking chocolate peanut butter ice cream this week, it’s easier for other people to like it, too.  Pretty soon other bits of computer code recognize a trend and start helpfully telling real people how wonderful chocolate peanut butter ice cream is. Before you know it, you’re standing in front of the 7-11 cooler in your fuzzy pink house slippers and sweatpants unable to find a pint when you really need one at midnight.

It’s a problem ice cream makers dream about and most authors chase.

Here’s what I think, unvarnished and liable to annoy some people I probably shouldn’t.

As an author, you need to have a social media platform that’s a vehicle for true fans to connect with and explore. Make it real, make it entertaining, make it engaging—in marketing speak, add value.

Contrary to what we want to believe, likes and followers do not sell books. No matter how often you say it, it doesn’t make it true. Belief made Tinkerbell fly; it still doesn’t make this true.

However, book sales do drive social media followers. More social media followers attract bigger publishers and agents. Bigger publishers spend more marketing dollars and have more clout with distribution channels, which improves the odds of a buyer opening his wallet, which pushes books sales, which increases social media followers…

Now if  Ravenclaws or Sytherins are publishing in Smallberg, it’s not a giant leap of genius for them to realize they can gain an edge by simply buying likes and followers. It’s bait to attract Big State and beyond. They’re going to fill the stadium with all the hot dog giveaways and Mr. Roboto followers they can. It won’t sell their current work, but it can make a larger publisher or higher profile agent sit up and notice.

But realize dangling bait is one thing, getting the fish to bite and reeling him in is a completely different skill set. It’s imperative that when your numbers hook the attention of a bigger fish, you’re ready to win because if you can’t score a touchdown when it counts, it doesn’t matter how many people are watching. People will eat your free hot dogs and go home to American Idol reruns. Fans for hire are fickle that way.

As much as I hate to admit it, I’m probably a Hufflepuff. Maybe Sytherin or Ravenclaw-lite. Right now, I’m comfortable where I am. But I absolutely get why some authors play the numbers game. Could be Machiavelli was right. And someday for the price of a burger and fries I may want to find out.


To keep me from going to the dark side, you can like my Facebook author page or follow me on Twitter. Just so you’ll know what you’re getting into, I think re-posting inspiring quotes with photos of cats is not adding value unless you are Hallmark or marketing to a target audience who loves greeting cards, affirmations, and cats. I find too many authors think they are writing for this audience, but that’s another blog post.

There’s been a lot of debate in the blogosphere lately about the future of digital books. Most of the debates center around price point, format, and distribution channels. Traditional publishers are bemoaning the self-publishing frenzy as the death of good, quality fiction that has at least kissed an editor and proofreader’s desks, and big eBook distributors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble are fighting over formats, traditional vs. wholesale pricing models, and proprietary content. Small imprints and large publishing houses alike are clamoring that Amazon is trying to seduce authors away from them and into the brave, new world of self-publishing, while authors are busy running numbers, looking for the magic option that allows them to make rent next month. It’s all about getting a bigger slice of the digital book pie.

From what I’ve seen, most industry players think of eBooks as digital versions of print on a  page. Out of all the work they do to create a print book—from editing, book design, and marketing—most simply take the final text file and tweak it so it looks good on various eReaders and add a jpeg of the book cover. There are several easy to use and inexpensive software programs that do a reasonable job of creating digital books from text files; it’s no wonder that many authors are now choosing to self-publish. Unfortunately, based on the thousand or so eBooks I’ve read on a variety of devices, “reasonable” is really all you get with a digital book, regardless if published by self-starters or the big boys.

Did I mention most people think in terms of simply translating print on a page to print on a screen?

But as an author and former interactive instructional designer, I think the industry is missing a huge opportunity. While the vast majority of adult and young adult fiction works well as Print on a Screen, I think there is a market in the middle grade, chapter, picture, and non-fiction book arenas for what I call Enhanced Interactive versions.

Beyond the current standard of linking to internal dictionaries, providing the capability for user-specific notes, highlights, and bookmarks, and simple chapter-based menu structures, Enhanced Interactive versions elevate the reading experience to a whole new level. For example, an EI version of a book that explores a foreign culture or science concepts could link to additional information embedded in the digital book (but not included in the print version—differentiating and driving more people to the digital version) or maintained on external websites. In picture or chapter books, young readers could color or embellish illustrations, watch characters come to life through animation, or even add their own drawings to stories or new words to pictures—everything from writing an entirely original narrative to the existing illustrations to adding their own wacky nouns, adverbs, and verbs á la mad libs. Cookbooks linked to the internet could provide an outlet for home cooks to share their adaptations, tips, and photos. EI books could even take a cue from  social media to create virtual book clubs filled with all the minutiae an author knows about his characters, plots, and backstories, along with all the things he writes that never (and often for good reason) make it into the book.  For the rabid fan, too much is never enough.

The possibilities are endless; I could write 20 blogs on how Enhanced Interactive versions of various book types could function and the markets they’d appeal to. In a nutshell, simply think of all the ways we game, learn, communicate, and interact with digital media and embed these features in digital text through icons, color cues, menus, tabs—whatever you can imagine. That’s my vision of Enhanced Interactive digital books.

Of course, not all digital books would make great EI books. But designed, targeted, and marketed to the right audiences, EI books have the potential to revolutionize the publishing industry in ways as profound as Gutenberg’s wonderful moveable type and the Kindle’s digital format.

All of  which should be good news to traditional publishers. Since creating versions of digital books that go beyond print on a screen requires skill sets and deeper pockets most self-publishers possess, this EI market fits squarely into the bailiwick of imprint and large publication houses. Properly managed, publishers could turn their versions of EI digital books into virtual seals of approval, allowing them to quietly reassume their self-appointed gate-keeper roles as guardians of good writing and purveyors of quality product.  The crowd goes wild.

I know just the series to start.

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