The Bonfire of the Straw Men Publishing Writing

In the third of a series of increasingly misguided essays for The Guardian – Why social media isn’t the magic bullet for self-epublished authors – Ewan Morrison builds a bonfire of self-publishing straw men.

Morrison is convinced that “epublishing is another tech bubble, and that it will burst within the next 18 months.” The reason given:

epublishing is inextricably tied to the structures of social media marketing and the myth that social media functions as a way of selling products. It doesn’t, and we’re just starting to get the true stats on that. When social media marketing collapses it will destroy the platform that the dream of a self-epublishing industry was based upon.

Where do I start? Perhaps I should first point out that Morrison has made this prediction before, in the second essay in this series: The self-epublishing bubble.

Given that it is now August, and the bubble essay was published in January, I presume there are only ten months left on the clock before we can ultimately judge Morrison’s prediction. However, I don’t think we need wait that long.

Your logical reaction to Morrison’s claim might be to query how “epublishing” or “self-epublishing” can be a bubble, given that it’s not a class of asset which can be traded – potentially leading to dangerously over-inflated prices, driven by excessive speculation rather than market-based fundamentals.

Don’t worry, this reaction is normal.

Ewan Morrison appears to have an aversion to logic. Even when presented with Joe Konrath’s complete refutation of the bubble hypothesis in the comments of the Guardian piece, Morrison carries on regardless.

The eagle-eyed among you may have noted that Joe Konrath’s post puncturing the bubble theory was written in March 2011, some nine months before Ewan Morrison resurrected this particular zombie meme.

Morrison has form here. Last August, in the first of these essays – Are books dead, and can authors survive? – Morrison advanced the laughable notion that:

ebooks and epublishing will mean the end of ‘the writer’ as a profession. The digital revolution will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free. Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist.

This, of course, ignores the ever-growing amount of writers making more and more money from e-books and self-publishing; the whole article is a succession of misunderstandings stitched together in a pseudo-scientific theory which does little to convince.

I could list the facts, quote the data, and highlight the numerous points where reality collides with Morrison’s hypothesis, but he appears to place little stock in facts, data, and reality. Even so, he might take a glance at the Kindle Boards thread listing the burgeoning number of self-publishers who have sold 50,000 e-books (177, for the click-lazy).

But I digress. Let’s get back to Morrison’s current article, and the reason for his doom-mongering.

epublishing is inextricably tied to the structures of social media marketing and the myth that social media functions as a way of selling products. It doesn’t, and we’re just starting to get the true stats on that. When social media marketing collapses it will destroy the platform that the dream of a self-epublishing industry was based upon.

Newsflash: digital self-publishing (I refuse to use the term “self e-publishing”) is here to stay. Authors are trying it in rising numbers, attracted by the relative ease of the process, the ability to distribute anywhere on the planet, and the opportunity to earn 70% royalty rates. And, as the above link to Kindle Boards attests, the number doing extremely well is expanding at a furious rate.

But we know all that. The viability of self-publishing was debated in the US at length last year, but no-one tries to tell you that you’ll never make any money from self-publishing anymore. At least, that’s the case in the US. In the UK, it seems that argument is only starting.

In fact, when you read Morrison’s entire article (and his supporters in the comments), you realize that everything they are arguing about is out of date. These arguments have already been had!

I find it fascinating that as the UK follows the same path as the US in terms of digital adoption rates, the conversation follows the same track too. Within days of Morrison’s stale views being aired, Amazon announced that their UK customers were now purchasing more e-books than print books (about fourteen months after the identical US milestone).

For those like Morrison who haven’t been paying attention to the US market, it might feel like they are advancing fresh thinking. But I’m afraid that e-books are no fad, bookstores are in trouble, self-publishing won’t damage your career (and can make you money), cheap books don’t destroy minds, and marketing is not about Twitter-spam.

Morrison seems to think that the decision of writers like Amanda Hocking in the US or Mark Edwards & Louise Voss in the UK to accept eye-popping advances for previously self-published titles is some proof of the ephemeral nature of self-publishing.

The logic is torturous (and it was painful the first time this meme surfaced, last year), but the obvious point that Morrison misses is that these writers were able to take the books that were roundly rejected, self-publish them, build impressive readerships, and leverage that into the kind of deal that most writers will never see: a life-changing advance, and huge marketing support.

That’s proof of the bona fides of self-publishing, not the opposite.

Further, self-publishing is not “inextricably tied to the structures of social media marketing.” None of the successful self-publishers I know are dependent on what Morrison dubs “social media marketing.”

If Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, WordPress, Tumblr and Pinterest disappeared tomorrow, self-publishers would continue to sell books. It might be harder for readers to share information about the books they enjoy – whether self-published or not – but I’m sure they would find a way.

This gets to the heart of Morrison’s misconception of how self-publishers use social media. It’s not about selling books, it’s about making connections. The only thing that has ever really sold books is word-of-mouth.

The difference today is that social media can act as an accelerant to the spreading of that “word.” If a reader discovers a book they enjoyed (whether self-published or not) they don’t have to wait until they meet somebody in person to recommend it to them. They can email their friends, blog about it, post it to Facebook, or tweet it (reaching all their friends in less time than it takes to meet one of them for coffee).

Note: I said “a reader” not the author. If you are friends with somebody, and trust their taste in books, you will place value in their recommendations. What happens with social media is that such recommendations can spread much more efficiently.

Authors – whether self-published or not – who attempt to mimic this organic process through relentless tweeting about their own work will soon find that such an approach is ineffective (and counterproductive).

That doesn’t mean that authors don’t do it. You only need to log on to Twitter and Facebook to see plenty of “buy my book” spam.

The problem for Morrison’s argument is that he (a) assumes that all self-publishers use social media in this way and (b) assumes that such marketing is integral to self-publishers’ sales/marketing strategies; neither claim bears any resemblance to reality. In fact, I would wager that there is an inverse relationship between a self-publisher’s sales and the amount of “buy my book” spam they emit.

I don’t relentlessly tweet about my work. I announce a new release, or a special sale, and I might point my followers towards a nice review now and then – but that’s about it.

The rest of my time on Twitter or Facebook is spent connecting with people – hashing out the issues of the day, making friends, joking, sharing advice, seeking help, getting to know each other; you know, just like meeting people in real life.

So how do self-publishers market their books if they aren’t relentless flooding social networks with purchase links?

The first step is ensuring you have a good, well-written story, professionally edited, with an attractive cover, an enticing blurb, and a price which will encourage someone to purchase right away, rather than mulling it over. The absence of the foregoing will limit the effectiveness of any marketing strategy, so it’s essential to get those basics rights before considering anything else.

Next you need to make sure your book is discoverable. That topic is worth a post on its own, but essentially all that means is that you pay attention to things like what comes up on Google or Amazon when you search for your book’s potential title, what categories your book is classified under on the various retailers, and what keywords you use.

You also want to ensure your book is shareable. Back-matter is crucial, and should contain things like (clickable) links to your new release mailing list, retailers where readers can leave a review, and your own social media accounts. In short, give the reader the tools to recommend your book to others.

Finally, and trickiest of all, you must try and make your book is visible to new readers as often as possible. Visibility is a continual challenge, but it can be achieved through a variety of means (of varying effectiveness) including: ad spots, blog hops, author events, limited-time sales, book blog reviews, freebies, cross-promotion, and interviews.

If you do it right, and get a big enough sales spike, Amazon will begin promoting your book for you – not just via the personalized recommendations you see around the site, but also in the all-powerful email blasts that can really drive a book into the stratosphere.

Critics might argue that all this is just another hypothesis. However, I’m willing to test mine. My historical novel A Storm Hits Valparaiso is currently ranked #261,306 in the Kindle Store – which should make it an interesting case study.

Until a few months ago, it was my bestselling book in 2012. While I’ve been busy writing the follow-up, it has slipped down the rankings quite a bit. I haven’t been worried, though. It’s selling okay in print and has always done well when it has achieved any visibility whatsoever. As such, I’m confident that all it needs is a little exposure to start selling again.

My plan is this: drop the price to 99c for three days and promote the sale with some ad spots. When the book peaks in the Amazon rankings, I’ll raise the price back up to $4.99 and start pulling in much higher royalties. Hopefully, I’ll sell enough over the three days that Amazon will start promoting the book for me (and at the higher price too).

Of course, I could be wrong about all this stuff. Keep an eye on A Storm Hits Valparaiso over the next three days and find out for yourself.

UPDATE: I left this out of the original post, but, in hindsight, that was a mistake. I think it’s important both to defend the reputation of Joanna Penn and to show the kind of rhetorical tactics that Ewan Morrison employs. From his Guardian essay:

Self-styled eSpecialists such as [Joanna] Penn often invoke the 80/20 rule which advises that, as a sales person (in this case an author), you should spend 20% of your time writing and 80% of your time networking through social media.

Joanna Penn, as anyone is familiar with her will know, said nothing of the sort. She said that writers should spend 80% of their time on social media not promoting their work. Nothing to do with how much your time you should spend writing versus marketing. Morrison took this misrepresentation and then built a theory out of it. From his essay:

Let’s look at the stats. If we take Margulies and Penn seriously, how much time does this leave for actually writing? Most self-epublished authors hold down a day job, so let’s give them three hours a day, after work, for author activities. That’s 1,095 hours a year. Reduce this to 20% (since you have to spend 80% of your time covertly self-promoting online), and you get 219 writing hours a year, which works out as 18 12-hour days to write a book.

You see what he did there? Now all self-publishers spend 80% of their free time not writing. The article goes on in a similar vein ad nauseum.

Livia Blackburn called Morrison on this misrepresentation in the comments of The Guardian (and I followed up) and his response was particularly mealy mouthed:

David, thank you for your concern, Joanna and I have exchanged communications about this since.

The 80/20 rule is ubiquitous and something of a industry standard in emarketting. At the LCC conference at which both Joanna and I were keynote speakers earlier this year it was agreed on and much debated by the pro-self pub panel, of whom Joanna was a member.

I agree that Joanna’s position is much more complex and highly developed than this simple piece of reductionist thinking but in the context in which it was first presented to me – at the conference- there were two camps, those for and those against this proposition. Joanna and I were on either side of the debate.

Thank you for being concerned with standards in the Guardian.

Needless to say, that’s simply not good enough. Morrison should apologize and The Guardian should print a correction. But I won’t hold my breath.