Monday, May 21, 2012
Decades ago I read a science fiction story about a planet where trends, fads and fashions would rise and fall in a single night. The clothing styles popular at nine in the evening might be totally different from those worn at four in the morning. A unknown performer might become a instant celebrity, with billions of admirers, then fade back into obscurity within twenty four hours. Even language could evolve overnight, with new words coined and yesterday's favorite terms falling into disuse.
I wish I could remember the title or author of this prophetic tale. It seemed original, almost far-fetched, in the nineteen eighties. Now, aside from some expansion of time frame, it quite accurately describes the reality of our networked world, and especially the world of publishing.
Thousands of words have been devoted to the “50 Shades of Grey phenomenon”. The popular media have dissected the appeal of BDSM to the “mommies” who made the book such a hit or wondered whether the book signals a precipitous decline in morality. Erotica bloggers have rejoiced at the popular spotlight shone on our genre or bemoaned the poor literary quality of the book itself. Feminists have castigated the shallowness of the heroine, questioning the consequences for the current generation of young women.
Everywhere I turn, people seem to be debating the implications of E.L. James' incredible success. On one writers email list I subscribe to, a member asked, only half-facetiously, whether 50 Shades of Grey might be some sort of devious plot by the traditional publishing industry to test the waters as to the popular acceptability of erotic fiction. Is 50 Shades of Grey a conspiracy? A fluke? An indicator of the tyranny of mediocrity? A harbinger of things to come?
In my view, FSOG is significant because it demonstrates the near-random amplifying effects of the social Internet. The book started life as a series published on a fan fiction web board. It happened to strike a chord with the subscribers, then gained popularity via grass-roots dissemination of information to new readers. The buzz grew exponentially, facilitated by the ease of tweeting, forwarding, sharing and syndication in today's socially-oriented Web infrastructure.
I'm not going to say anything more about this book – partly because I believe that more than enough has been said already. My main point in this post is that the Internet is a huge amplifier of ideas. Under the right circumstances, a book, a song, a video, or a news story can attract the attention of literally millions of people within a matter of days. However, despite what many believe, it's extremely difficult to predict exactly what content will “go viral”. The content itself is not necessarily the primary determinant of popularity. It's all in the luck of the draw.
Nevertheless, despite the random element in Internet amplification, everyone is trying to game the system. Publishing has become a frantic attempt to utilize viral nature of the Internet to gain attention for one's books. Almost every professional author that I know spends significant amounts of time on blogging, tweeting, Facebook, Internet chats, and other promotional activity. We create banners and trailers to display on review sites. We “like” each other's books and leave comments on each other's posts. The goal is to seed the Internet as densely as possible with references to our names and our books. In this scrabble to be part of the Next Big Thing, books themselves hardly seem to matter.
Last year, Amazon.com introduced the Kindle Select program and generated a frenzy of excitement among both readers and authors. A book enrolled in this program is available exclusively for the Kindle. In return for granting Amazon these exclusive sales rights, authors or publishers receive 70% of the sales price of their books – significantly more than most ebook publishers offer. In addition, publishers/authors are allowed five promotional days for each title – days when the books can be offered for free. Judicious use of these promo days can build the buzz for a new book. Downloads of the free book affect the ranking of the book when it's for sale. “Likes”, tagging, reviews, and actual purchases also push up the book's rank.
Since this program came into effect, a whole ecosystem has developed around it. There are a dozen newsletters to inform readers about the latest Kindle releases. Many sell advertisements to authors who want to increase their visibility. There are websites and forums, for readers and authors. Self-styled marketing gurus blog or publish their own books on how to get your Kindle book to the top of the charts. I wouldn't be surprised to discover someone had published a book on how to get rich by telling Amazon authors how to get rich. If so, I'm sure that author hopes to ride the crest of the Kindle Select wave to personal success.
Toward the end of last year, one of my publishers decided to go exclusive on Amazon for all new titles. I have to admit that the initial effect on my royalties was dramatic – and I'm nowhere near the top seller for this company. Now, every day on the authors' email list, my colleagues discuss their rankings (sometimes on an hourly basis), announce their free days, and beg the other authors to like and tag their books. The publishers are spending lots of money on newsletter ads to draw in readers. They've had some success manipulating the rankings of our books; my peers are in ecstasy.
Personally, I'm skeptical. I doubt this approach is sustainable. If we can work the system, so can everyone else. Furthermore, the number of titles available on the Kindle is growing at an astronomical rate – especially in the categories of erotica and erotic romance. A goodly number of them are shovel-ware or even plagiarized. (See http://www.npr.org/2012/01/29/146053943/on-amazon-an-uneasy-mix-of-plagiarism-and-erotica.) The competition is just plain ridiculous. Even for legitimate authors (which I define as authors who actually care about what they put their name on), tagging, liking and other actions are eventually all going to cancel each other out.
I'd like to believe that when the situation levels off, the best books will be the ones with the highest sales. But experience suggests otherwise.
Meanwhile, after an initial jump in my royalties, they've begun to fall. I need another release to push them back up. I do have a book in the pipeline; it may be a few weeks before it's released. But how many other Kindle titles will show up in the meantime?
Amazon is just one example of my point. The Internet is dynamic, constantly changing and far too complex for any individual to grasp. Strategies for search engine optimization become obsolete almost as soon as they're discovered, as Google and its competitors tweak their algorithms. Two months ago the hottest new facility for social networking was Google+. Last month it was Triberr. Now everyone's talking about Pinterest. If you can catch a viral wave, ride it for all its worth – but I don't think it's possible to summon one on demand.
And yet, authors can't afford to completely ignore the amplifying influences of today's ubiquitous connectivity. Or can they? One of the most successful authors I know doesn't blog, or tweet, or hang out on Facebook. She has a single email list where she communicates with her fans (more than 500 of them) – and she writes, every day, despite being a single mother with two young daughters. Since she was first published, a handful of years ago, she has produced over a hundred books (mostly novella length). The majority of her fans buy every single one.
Meanwhile, here I am, spending hours writing a blog post instead of my current work in progress.