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.

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