Nuance and new media: the challenge of e-books

If a writer sends a message in the new media galaxy, can it be heard? It’s not as if (like the tree in the proverbial forest) there isn’t anyone listening. It’s a highly populated and active space. It’s a space that readers frequent and a space where they spend money. It’s a space, it seems, with a lot of potential for writers. Indeed, self-publishing e-books has proven a boon for many. Stories abound of humble scribes who upload a file and soon find themselves climbing the best-seller lists and being celebrated in front of packed houses or better yet, being signed by traditional publishers (as happened recently to Darrell Pitt). Previous successes in self-publishing such as Marcel Proust and Matthew Reilly are also noted (despite the fact that they self-published to print). With these inspiring stories, the low cost of access (and the high profits on royalties) it’s no wonder that many writers are launching their work online.

Bundling e-books with those of  established writers is an effective way to bring readers to new and emerging writers says O'Brien. Thanks to Rachel Ford James for use of this image Stacks of Free O'Reilly Books at Ignite Boston 5 under Creative Commons.
Bundling e-books with those of established writers is an effective way to bring readers to new and emerging writers says O'Brien. Thanks to Rachel Ford James for use of this image Stacks of Free O'Reilly Books at Ignite Boston 5 under Creative Commons.

Connor Tomas O’Brien (writer and co-founder of Tomely, a DRM free e-bookstore) says that unlike other forms of online publishing, the e-book brings a little more to writers. ‘The book has historically been purchased with real currency – so when you transfer that to the electronic realm there’s an expectation that it’s being bought and sold,’ he says. The e-book therefore, has more potential to yield an income.

In parallel with traditional publishing, entrepreneurial writers are advised to establish mini-marketing departments. They must self-promote, advertise and build themselves ‘a platform’ on social media. But O’Brien cautions against the rhetoric, ‘A lot of writers are working on the assumption that if they can build up a critical mass of followers on Twitter or Facebook (or wherever) they can translate that into sales [of self-published work],’ he says. But the problem with this assumption is that although we can measure the number of followers we have, we can’t measure how much these followers care. (Some people follow on a whim - thus their true interest is negligible – and who knows how often your followers read their social media). ‘I’ve seen people who have thousands of Twitter followers promoting their work and finding it really, really hard to sell a handful of copies,’ says O’Brien.

He believes the main way self-published writers get recognition (and sales) is via the endorsement of an established writer. ‘It’s the same in film and music. Independent musicians get the ball rolling when they are promoted by an incredibly well known musician,’ he says. Some writers try to reach new readers through paid advertising (such as Google Adwords, Goodreads or Facebook). But as O’Brien notes, ‘When you’re a writer, you’re trying to do something that’s nuanced. You’re not trying to do something derivative. It’s hard to get that across quickly.’ (Note: I’ll be publishing O’Brien’s tips on Facebook advertising in a future post).

At Tomely books are often sold in bundles (curated groupings that include work from both established and emerging writers). These are the best way for Tomely to sell the work of new writers says, O’Brien ‘The one or two authors that are well known are pulling up the other authors.’ It’s a model that echoes traditional publishing – both the editorial package, and the mix of trusted and new work.

In traditional publishing models, A-List authors ultimately fund new writers. ‘A lot of self-publishers don’t realise that most authors with [traditional] publishers don’t return what the publisher’s put in. They’re not making money either,’ says O’Brien. ‘Self-publishing is a lot more difficult than most people consider it.’

‘I don’t think self-publishing is this thing that’s going to destroy publishing and I don’t think it’s going to make lots of people particularly rich. But I don’t think the opposite either,’ says O’Brien. Like all mediums, there’s a lot in between, ‘That’s where you get the interesting stuff.’

This post was originally published 6 August 2013.

Social situation, business corporation: Promoting your work on Facebook

On one level, Facebook is a social situation (a virtual place where writers can combat some of the isolation our environments bring). There we can chat, network, share ideas, research and find inspiration. But Facebook is also a business tool. It has potential to deliver us to new readers and (in the case of self-published writers) to generate sales. Navigating Facebook offerings requires some deft though – both in terms of free (‘organic’) opportunities and paid ads.

Successfully advertising via Facebook is all in the pitch says Connor Tomas O'Brien. Thanks to Big West Conference for use of this image BASEBALL Pitcher of the Week - April 12-18, 2010 under Creative Commons.
Successfully advertising via Facebook is all in the pitch says Connor Tomas O'Brien. Thanks to Big West Conference for use of this image BASEBALL Pitcher of the Week - April 12-18, 2010 under Creative Commons.

‘If a stranger pitches something to you on a Facebook ad it’s going to be viewed as spam (unless it’s immediately obvious that it’s something you will be interested in),’ says Connor Tomas O’Brien (writer and co-founder of Tomely, a DRM free e-bookstore). He’s used paid ads to promote Tomely’s work with some success. ‘It works fairly well, but when people are talking about us organically it works a hundred times better,’ he says.

The minimum daily budget for a Facebook ad campaign is USD$1.00 per day, the minimum cost per click is 1 cent. Facebook’s big drawcard is that you can target your ads to specific demographics. Facebook’s challenge is that the person you’re serving the ad to isn’t necessarily online to consume your writing (they’re there to see what their friends are up to). This advertising environment contrasts sharply with ads served in the context of searches. Ads served on Google respond to the information you put into a search. Ads served on Facebook, as O’Brien says, are more often than not, ‘some horrible, stupid, annoying interruption.’

Because of this, targeting your Facebook ads and defining a strong pitch is central says O’Brien. ‘Make it obvious that what you’re advertising is something that person will care about and explain simply why they need to care.’

O’Brien noticed significantly different responses to his paid ads promoting Tomely as a bookstore and those promoting Tomely’s book bundles. ‘The bundles did a lot better because it’s easier to understand and more shareable. You could explain it in a couple of sentences, a sound bite, “Save money. Get in quick. Get all these books,”’ he says. Describing Tomely required more nuance (read more in my post Nuance and new media: the challenge of e-books)

Consider the reaction to your organic posts before spending on a paid ad. ‘If an author can’t get an organic buzz around what they’re doing a paid ad isn't going to help at all,’ says O’Brien. An ad needs to be engaging to get picked up. ‘If you can’t get anyone to pick it up just by telling them, then throwing it in their face and paying for that still won’t help,’ he says.

And as I learned, if you don’t set up your Facebook presence properly you won’t be able to maximise organic posts.

There’s a difference between signing up to Facebook and setting up a Facebook page. Choosing the wrong one can have implications.* A page is simply a presence on Facebook that those who’ve signed up to Facebook can ‘like’. It enables you (as the page owner) to write posts, but doesn’t allow you to engage with others unless they’ve specifically engaged with you. A page is more like a platform for very limited narrowcasting.

Signing up enables you to actively participate in the discussion. In signing up you are essentially creating a personal Facebook page (which you can make into your writing-promotion page by putting all privacy settings to public). Unlike when you have a page, you can post to others’ walls, comment and engage.

If you like your privacy, you might be inclined to set up a page rather than sign up. However there’s a crucial difference between the two: when you have a page, and you post to it, Facebook doesn’t deliver all of your posts to all of the users who’ve liked your page. In order for that to happen, you have to pay money. The only way for cash-strapped writers to maximise organic posts on Facebook is to sign up.

Facebook’s odd mix of social situation and big corporation makes its a tricky forum to promote the work of writers. But you can get some benefits – and even use its ambiguity in your favour. Paid Facebook posts are displayed both in the timeline and the sidebar. ‘It’s the ones that are interspersed in the timeline that are more popular,’ says O’Brien noting the blurring lines between advertising and editorial.

‘People don’t immediately peg to the fact that it’s an ad (which is really cheeky). I don’t know if that’s a strategy that’s going to work in the long term – but for the moment it does.’

*Once you’ve set up a page in your name it’s possible to change it to a personal account - but there is a drawback. By getting Facebook to change the type of user you are you’re very likely to lose your ‘likers’ (the page equivalent to ‘friends’).