Monday, November 12, 2012

Goodbye 'social marketing' – Hello 'social integration'!

If you're marketing an indie book, this post (the first in a series) is a must-read.

Amazon's Mechanical Turk

From the late 1700's to the mid-1800's, there was a chess-playing 'machine' called the Mechanical Turk that was a wonder and celebrity of its age. Though the contraption appeared mechanical, it was driven by a person hidden inside.

Amazon's Mechanical Turk was publicly launched in late 2005. Originally built to find duplicate Amazon pages, it was subsequently rolled out as a computer mechanism powered by crowdsourcing. Like the original Turk, it outwardly appeared to be a machine at work, but was actually powered by human thought-labor. Anyone who wanted a computer to handle a chore for which it was not well-suited, such as comparing colors, rating podcasts, rewriting sentences or transcribing human speech would hand the task to Amazon's Turk, which would in turn send off parts of the task to as many as 100,000 workers in over 100 countries. Amazon would then gather up the responses and present them to the customer. (To this day, Amazon considers the Turk to be in a 'beta' state.)

Amazon's 'Publishing Turk' turns the Slush-Pile Problem into the Slush-Pile Opportunity

When Amazon expanded into e-books, they faced their own problem of a kind not well-handled by computers: How to rate the hundreds of thousands of e-book submissions pouring in each year. Mainstream publishing calls this a 'slush pile', and what Amazon had created for itself was, in fact, the world's largest slush pile by far.

A 'traditional' publisher would have dealt with the matter in one (or both) of two ways: (1) Get more interns to wade through the slush pile, or (2) strictly limit the number of submissions accepted for review. But Amazon found a third way: They instituted a Mechanical Publishing Turk.

The Publishing Turk works like this: The outsourced workers are Amazon book customers. They are paid with free books. With workers and compensation in place, the Amazon Mechanical Publishing Turk initially determines the relative value of the books in its gigantic slush pile in two ways:

1) The number of downloads during a book's giveaway period.
2) The number of midrange-or-higher reviews given those books.

Of course, Amazon also rates traditionally-published (or self-published by better-known authors) books in a similar way, whether they are given away or not. But the vast slush pile, which accepts just about anything a wannabe writer cares to toss into it, is very special and important to Amazon. The slush pile is the reason why Amazon is no longer merely the world's largest online bookseller. They are now the world's largest publisher – of any kind.

The slush pile, monitored by the Mechanical Publishing Turk, is Amazon's single greatest advantage over mainline publishers. It has been the source of many runaway monster bestsellers, the type of book that most publishers depend on to stay in business. Wool and Fifty Shades of Grey emerged from the Turk's calculated machinations. The fact that such hits are now coming from Amazon has left the publishing world with a bad taste in its mouth, and it's never going away.

The book-marketer's dilemma

Amazon makes no secret of the fact that it is their customers who are finding the new 'name brand' authors. The question is: How does a slush-pile author or book marketer make the Publishing Turk his friend?

One thing an indie author or publisher won't do (at least not successfully) is to reach out directly to Amazon customers and reviewers, who are after all the workers who comprise the Turk. Although Amazon maintains a vast community of online bulletin boards and extensive lists of reviewers, they have made it increasingly difficult to contact these folks directly. In fact, they now actively discourage such practices. They have even gone so far as to begin barring reciprocal author reviews (I review your book, you review mine) when they detect the practice. As much as possible, Amazon is trying to insure that the impetus for reader reviews comes from the readers themselves, rather than paid review sources, sock puppets, or other obvious attempts at 'gaming' their system. They are making every effort to close up loopholes that have caused them embarrassment in the past.

Social media marketing is often touted as the solution to promotional resistance these days. But here again, it's not that simple. Even Facebook cannot seem to get the formula right, and many authors are resigning themselves to accepting that social media does not sell books any more than lowering prices does. (Advertised sales have their uses, but selling a book cheaply has limits as a long-term sales boost.)

So what is a marketer to do, with all routes seemingly closed?

Breaking down Amazon's breakouts

Let's look at the previously-cited Amazon breakout hits Wool and Fifty Shades of Grey, and consider what did not drive their sales. Then let's consider what these very different books might have in common.

• They weren't successful because they were 'different'. Both erotica and dystopia are extremely well-worn genre paths these days, and have been for some time. If genre were the reason for these books' success, more examples in those genres would approach their sales levels. As things stand, however, nothing else comes close.

• They weren't successful because they were exceptionally well-written. Fifty Shades has been widely panned by critics. Wool has not, but neither has anyone proclaimed the second coming of Isaac Asimov. (Not that this mattered to the director Ridley Scott, who snapped up the film rights in a bidding war.)

Many marketers, in such cases, shrug their shoulders and declare that there is no predicting the public's taste. To me this is a strange admission from anyone who claims insight into the ways and means of mass behavior.

The emergence of Social Integration

Digging deeper, we find our answer. Neither Shades nor Wool were 'socially marketed' online at all – but they were, in fact 'socially integrated'. And this was the key to their success – along with the reason their creators were surprised by it.

In the next installment, I'll examine what online 'social integration' means, how it is achieved, how it differs radically from so-called 'social marketing', and how the Amazon Mechanical Publishing Turk is itself integrated.


  1. Okay, you've got me. More please.

  2. Hi, John. 'More' is definitely coming, but I have a book to get out the door, so there'll be a delay. Look at it this way, though: If the books does poorly, then what do I know about this stuff? And if the book does well, you'll know this was a good investment of your time. So think of 'Patriots' release as testing the hypothesis (even if the hypothesis has not yet been fully detailed).

    1. Jeff, I've been reading your blog for two days now. I first came here to find an explanation on why my book sales suddenly hit a brick wall at Amazon Kindle. I think your article on the "bubble burst" pretty much sums up what is actually going on out there. I thank you for that, and will be following your blog from now on. Much success on your new release. John in Jakarta

  3. Thank you. The bubble DID burst, but happily there are two new lines of e-reader tablets selling like mad just before the holidays. They will move books, but only for those who do their marketing homework. No more falling off a log and selling a million books because you were in the right place at the right time. This is work now, and it's work to be approached intelligently. But it CAN be done. I believe this, and those authors who have followed a similar approach have done well.