Digital State: How the Internet is Changing Everything

In the digital age, successfully selling books can simply be a case of it "going viral" or not. My experiences of book marketing have had me wanting to attack people with a hunting knife...
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In the digital age, successfully selling books can simply be a case of it "going viral" or not. My experiences of book marketing have had me wanting to attack people with a hunting knife...

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I wrote a novel. Get me. But I'm not saying it to brag. Honest. I wrote a novel, and I then had the good fortune of finding someone who liked it enough to publish it.

Of course "good enough to publish" is a debatable point. The world is full of novels, good novels, that don't find a publisher, and the book shelves of the world are stocked with the occasional novel that could fairly be termed absolute shit. Taste and opinion are points of individual entitlement, of course, but I mean ‘absolute shit’ by fairly objective criteria, like poorly written, strangled syntax, clichéd diatribes; that variant of absolute shit. But this point is not the point I want to make. Let's get back to where I was going.

I'd doubled-up, written a novel and found a publisher. One friend suggested the latter was the more genuine accomplishment, and to a degree, they were right. A bona fide publisher, over 20 years experience in publishing, had said, "Yeah, I dig this, let's share it with the world."

And so by publishing and sharing, various friends got to read my novel, which was, being very honest, quite amazing, because then I was getting to have very real conversations about characters and the moments I'd put them in, and they had become “vivid and real” mind-clips for other people.

It's quite a mental thought, how a book can transfer your imagination to someone else, and then the two of you can kick-back and chat about a character as if they’re a mutual friend.

The double-edge later came when folk would kindly enough ask, "How are book sales going?" - because my instinctive reaction was to stab them in the throat, ideally with a large hunting knife. I'm not even a particularly violent person, and I don't even own a knife collection. Simply, when you're white-knuckle keen for something to do well, your sensitivities are upper-epidermal.

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Because unless you get on a short-list or win a gong or stumble into being a "phenomenon", then the art of book selling is a thorny, sticky, elusive business; as well as being a game of patience.

For every business built on an analogue model, like publishing, the digital age has pulled up the rug, ripped the heart out of almost all formerly rock-solid definitions, and made “the professionals” eat their once sacrosanct rule books.

Take a literal, simple example. Take the “dictionary definition” of a "book", as in "a portable written or printed treatise filling a number of sheets, fastened together, sewn, or pasted hinge wise.” (Oxford Dictionary)

Now a book is no longer just a book - in that it's no longer limited to the physically-bound pages of a spine. A book can now be “themes and ideas” that extend to all kinds of physical and digital places, consumed on all manner of screens and devices. (Consider how you're reading these words. Is it actually printed word on paper?)

More than ever before, not being able to touch something no longer dictates whether or not it is real. We're overcoming our need for physical possession. That once proud (possibly alphabetised) CD collection is now becoming dusty clutter. We're getting very comfortable with owning the “invisible”, of our beloved music and movies and books becoming so many binary wisps, accessed through portable slivers of screen, and backed-up in a cloud.

But by curious contrast, where the once-physical has now become abstract (a CD collection now a Spotify "playlist"; a book library now a Kindle collection), our formerly ephemeral recommendations are becoming recorded and preserved points of fact. Our commentaries have never been more searchable and solid.

Our "words-of-mouth" are becoming the translation of finger-touch, a type or a "like", the once "said and gone" now "expressed and documented", exhibited, track-able, so many pixelated crumbs along our always growing digital path.

Which takes me back to the book sales question; I hadn't forgotten.

Once my novel was out, I'd ever-so-slightly started to live the fluctuations of its throughout-the-day Amazon ranking. To me, the Amazon algorithm (that determines the ranking) was either the work of a very beautiful mind, or an utter cretin. It depended on how sales performed on any given day.

Hitting 10 customer reviews was a giddy moment. Because that's the thing: when asked, "How are book sales going?", you can never snap back, "Dunno, how many people have you recommended it to?" But that's the rub of it, the new rules of the changing game. While you want to say that the novel's ad campaign is going great guns, that the TV spot in X-Factor reached half the country, and the ruddy great big posters down at Waterloo look very awesome and will ensure Christmas sales are very merry, the (cold business) reality is no publisher can afford the kind of campaign that helps keep Nike and Apple iconic and coveted. Where you do see poster ads for books, they're for the bankable stars with built-in following, the big guns like King, Child, McEwan, and Amiss.

You might have noticed that 50 Shades of Grey was marketed with big glossy posters everywhere, but that was after the phenomenon-fact. 50 shades was already big, had “gone viral”, hit the masses; a sure-fire commercial hit. Those posters were just finishing the job off, taking it super-mainstream, prompting the remaining thick-edge of the late-majority wedge into a clit-lit purchase the next time they walked down their supermarket's book aisle.

EL James couldn't have dared imagine becoming a literary craze and millionaire. Because here’s a fact, fact-fans: no one can rig the game so they "go viral".

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Anyone who declares they're making a viral anything (film, book, animation, thought) is an idiot. “Going viral" might be their hope, and you can load the odds a little, but success is never guaranteed. Outcome cannot be stage-managed. Like good novels without a publisher, the world is also full of entertaining video content, uploaded, and summarily... ignored, so many "digital ghost ships" sailing through a thick binary mist, a crew of entertainers with no one to perform to. Because how do you know those ghost ships are out there? How do you thin the fog and find them? You can't, not really.

The only answer, which may be on the tip of your tongue, is that the ghost ships find you; that your friends tell you about them... and you tell your friends. Which is why words like "propagation" and "viral" have entered the lexicon of modern marketing speak. Only, “viral” evokes thoughts of “contagion” and zombie movies where wild-fire swathes of red swarm across the globe, pandemic-like, cities overcome, the only up-side being that you might be saved by Milla Jovovich.

In marketing terms, dialling-up viral communicability is damned-hard – because unless it’s content that’s massively must-see, say grossly salacious, or whimsically trivia and takes no more than 5 seconds of someone’s time, then you’re going to come up against a likely barrier of “can’t really be arsed”.

While “word-of-mouth” can play forward with increasing heat and feverish intensity, the reverse is more likely to happen. I had a novel published, which was exciting for me, and for my family and some of my immediate friends. Some of them then told their friends, where some excitement stayed in the mix, but mute by comparison.

At around the second degree of separation, momentum tends to fall off a cliff and the virus burns itself out. And at that point, my publisher started telling me to stop looking at the Amazon ranking’s, because these digital days, publishing is a slow burn, long-tail affair. 50 Shades built a following over a good 18 month period. The latest Costa Book UK award winner, Pure, spent its first year in print only available through Amazon, because the likes of WH Smith refused to stock it.

With a little help from my friends, I’m now coaching myself to chill, to cool my boots and jets, to even let go a little. To let things happen (and not happen) and not go potentially ‘postal’ if they don’t, it’s not easy. The trick is to care in all the right ways, and none of the crazy ones. But that's quite a trick. I find remembering to breathe is sage advice.

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