Thursday, June 14, 2012

Rent, or Own Your Audience?

For most of my life, to be an author without a publisher was preposterous, shameful, and vain.

Ever since moveable type was invented, authors have rented a readership from their publisher. Publishers owned the world of readers. Publishers were known brands, institutions. They had social standing. They had substantial offices with impressive views, filled with bustling employees. They were 'too big to fail' before it was popular. They had key relationships with booksellers that few authors could bypass. They threw parties attended by important people. They were mentioned in the news.

Authors risked their very existence to pursue their ideas, but literature was a game few publishers lost. They owned an audience hungry for new 'product', and it mattered little to them where it came from.

Much has changed in these dynamics in recent years, and this has been widely attributed to Amazon and to e-books. You already know that Amazon has enabled authors to bypass the publisher-bookstore cabal which was his/her biggest single obstacle to independence, so I won't rehash that.

But there is another obstacle, a thornier issue that has become increasingly evident now that the e-book market has peaked and matured: The ownership of audience.

This issue is so central and critical that Amanda Hocking – even as her self-pubbed books were exploding in popularity – waved the white flag and signed a publishing deal. The strain of constant marketing, she said, was overwhelming. It was better, she felt, for her to concentrate on writing and have a partner whose business it was to manage and maintain her audience. (It remains to be seen whether Hocking's best skills were in the marketing of her work, rather than in its creation.)

A decade before e-book madness took root, John Scalzi was a would-be author locked out of the publishing world (as so many were). His response was radical for that time: He established an online presence via his own sci-fi blog, built up his own audience, and sold his books directly to them. This so stunned Tor Books that they offered him a contract. Like Hocking, Scalzi accepted. But unlike Hocking, Scalzi intuited that his edge in dealing with Tor would be forfeit if he allowed, through benign neglect, the following he had built to become 'their' audience. Scalzi therefore continued to build his blog and increase his outreach through alliances with other blogs and organizations. Today he is one of the biggest names in sci-fi, which never would have happened if he had not tended his own flock.

Yesterday I happened into a facebook writers' forum and mentioned how far the tools for establishing and maintaining one's own audience had come. Someone challenged me to name such a tool. I replied that he was using one at that very moment - facebook. Facebook and Twitter have an enormous facility for locating and maintaining relationships with the kind of people who want to hear what an author has to say. And we live in an age when a writer, musician, performer or visual artist who does not bring his own audience to the table faces a perilous future.


  1. You make excellent points and I agree almost completely, with the exception that I am not sure Facebook friends and Twitter followers are the best way to find real readers. You may be right, and I'm not giving up on them, but I tend to think the actual readers are gravitating more toward sites like Goodreads and the various Kindle blogs, etc. Facebook seems to be more about sharing funny videos, music, politics, etc, etc. I see a lot of writers flogging their books on Facebook and I see their "friends" responding but I wonder if it is the author's most productive use of time (see Amanda Hocking).

  2. You're not wrong, but there's a dichotomy in play here.

    WIthout question, the average Goodreads user (or the inhabitants of some of the other virtual communities you cite) is more likely to be a reader than the average Facebook or Twitter user. For that matter, the average Google+ user is also more likely to buy/read books than the users of those services!

    My problem with Goodreads is twofold: (1) It would be socially inappropriate (i.e., rude) for me to appear on that service, as an author, hawking my book. Nor would I enjoy doing that. (2) The appropriate way for me to use Goodreads is to read/report on books. By establishing relationships that way, it can become 'naturally' known that I am an author and so on. Right now, though, I am too busy doing my advance promo and finishing 'Patriots' to read anything longer than a magazine article. For me at the moment, the Goodreads method is too slow.

    On the other hand, as you suggest, I am promoting myself to folks less likely to read. Therefore, that is at least as much a poor use of time as I claim Goodreads to be!

    But here's what lies beneath the surface:

    1) Many Facebook users are also Goodreads users. Many of the folks on my friends list are known readers. Some of them are influential among other readers. (I did my homework in this regard.)

    2) I do not need my Facebook friends and subscribers to read my book! What I need them to do, and hope they will feel moved to do, is to download my book when it comes out (FREE) on Kindle. That initial surge is what jumpstarts the Amazon machine - or fails to, if it fizzles. And the Amazon book-selling machine is ultimately what you want on your side.

    3) I also want my FB friends to be moved to talk about me, and to talk about the issues surrounding my book, and not necessarily the book itself - because the book is not yet out. I can't expect folks to talk about a book by an unknown author that has not yet been released! But there are issues the book addresses that do come up naturally in conversation on FB. And believe it or not, folks have been finding these conversations and finding me - and asking about 'Patriots' - as a result. This has been happening at an accelerating rate.

  3. 4) One other point re FB: Their relatively new 'subscribe' feature turns out to be a tremendous tool for building a great online community - if you use it properly. I may talk about that in a future post, as it's a worthy subject all by itself. This was a realization that I just came to grips with a few weeks ago, and having put it to use I have seen some very gratifying results. (Just in time, too, because I had started to become frustrated with FB and was wondering if I was, in fact, wasting precious time.)

    5) Re authors & Facebook: Yes, I see many authors hanging out together and trying to sell each other books via FB. Yes, I see the frustration and bitterness of doing that. Yes, I do wonder what the hell they are thinking. No, my own 'friends' list contains relatively few authors (and even those few, for the most part, aren't my 'competition'). I keep some authors on my list who have been genuinely friendly and supportive and who openly share information. Theresa Ragan, for instance, is as warm and open and supportive as they come.

    6) Re Twitter: My first 2,000 followers (I am just over 1,700 now but should be at 2K shortly) are comprised of various folks chosen for various reasons. One of those reasons, quite frankly, was simply because they were moved to follow back! Twitter is designed to make that first 2,000 is a tough slog. The next hurdle, I understand, is at 5,000. What I will do for the next 3,000 is to focus on book reviewers. I want to establish as many relationships with them as possible, because once the book is released it will need reviews. Most online book reviewers are overwhelmed with requests (demands?) for book reviews. Establishing casual relations with some of these folks early on is far better than blasting out emails requesting reviews once the book is out.

    Twitter is a unique tool this way - you really can build your list pretty much the way you want, and focus it much more narrowly than anything outside, say, Goodreads. That is, as long as you are willing to do the heavy lifting and put in the hours to find the folks you want to reach (and, of course, who WANT to be reached).

    Anyway, Kathleen, that's where I'm coming from on this. For better or worse, this is what makes sense to me.

  4. Oh, there is one other point I should mention. It's been on my mind since I began this. There is a concept of 'people who read' and 'people who don't read'. As you would expect, publishers and authors tend to market to the 'people who read'.

    Same thing happens with genres. There are folks who read Romance Novels, and folks who don't. There are folks who read sci-fi, who go to ComiCons and so on, and those who don't. Typically you sell to the 'ones that do' and ignore the ones that don't.

    But occasionally, you get a 'Harry Potter' or a 'Da Vinci Code' or a 'Dark Knight' or an 'Alien' where the usual reader/nonreader distinctions do not apply. The only distinctions re such properties are the people who are interested in them, and the people who are not. I believe that 'Patriots' may be a book that is not bound by interest in reading or interest in sci-fi.