Morrison, Shatzkin and The Value of Social Media in Publishing

“But for the self-published authors, they’re the whole ball of wax. And when it is argued that self-publishing is the better course for authors, two assumptions seem to become tacit: 1) that the print-in-store sale doesn’t matter and 2) that if the marketing to be done is mainly in social networks, the publisher can’t or doesn’t add much value.”

Mike Shatzkin’s piece, quoted above, on the necessary role legacy publishers play in book marketing – as always – adds value to the current debate on whether social marketing is a real benefit before and after a book’s publication. For the record, Shatzkin rightly concludes that while large publishers are investing time and money into developing online platforms and apps- citing Hachette’s recent launch of ChapterShare – we remain a long way off a time when social media marketing is the only game in town for authors and publishers. The debate gathered some real steam recently when this piece appeared in the Guardian UK suggesting a deep flaw in the idea that social media is the only way to sell books – an idea strongly put forward within the self-publishing community.
As well-written as the Guardian piece is by Ewan Morrison, and he does make some engaging arguments, I couldn’t help feeling this was another mass-media piece written specifically to promote an up-coming event Morrison will appear at during the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference and an attempt to rile the goat of as many debate participants as possible. Morrison goes on to describe epublishing as a just ‘another tech bubble,  and that it will burst within the next 18 months” because of its ties to social media marketing and reliance on this as a way to sell products. I get the feeling Morrison, had he been fifteen years older, would have poo-pood the notion of ordering a pizza using a mobile phone or from a website. Sure, all bubbles burst. That’s bubbles for you – fragile and with a mind of their own. The air has to escape at some time and point from every soaring objet du desir. Go ask any X-Factor winner where they will be in 18 months and they will probably answer, ‘I dunno, I’ve forgotten where was I 18 hours ago!’
The real problem with Morrison’s Guardian piece is that it confuses far too many issues; the development of digitalisation in the publishing industry with ebooks alone, and not the fact that it is simply a new form of delivering content to the reader in a more direct way; epublishing is as much a part of the legacy industry as it is for self-publishing; and social media is intended as a tool for communities (linking person to person, business to consumer and author to reader) and not a replacement for word-of-mouth, nor was it ever intended as an exclusive marketing tool – no more than TV or Radio is an exclusive medium for advertising.
Social media can (not does) work as a tool of brand-building and sales growth, but only if it is used properly – that means an audience is identified and targeted, and, crucially, it is combined with traditional forms of marketing. You can’t measure the impact and efficiency of social media marketing on digital sales growth alone. The goal of any marketing campaign is ultimately to create word-of-mouth leading to traffic and sales of a product. But Morrison is correct in one respect – the vast majority of users of social media, as a marketing tool, invest more time and money than it is actually worth. It works best when used at local community level to build a small brand delivered to a moderate and selective audience – this is why it can sometimes work well for self-published authors. I’ve never understood why corporations like Coke Cola or General Motors would be interested in social media as a marketing tool. This is why companies on a large scale have to create more and more elaborate and quirky traditional and global marketing adverts to capture an audience and just stay in the marketing race.
What Morrison doesn’t do in his Guardian piece is question how effective traditional marketing really is. Social media, just like ebooks, is still in a relative infancy, and throughout the piece, Morrison is at pains to express his distaste with promoters of digital media marketing and continually tries to drive a wedge between what is new and what is old. Talk about missing the point!
Now, back to Shatzkin’s quote at the top of this article.
Of course, print sales and sales from brick and mortar stores should matter to self-published authors, just as much as it matters to traditionally published authors – except that the so-called ‘model of publishing’ relied upon by many author solutions providers serving the needs of self-published authors is predicated on the lie that print and physical sales don’t matter. This lie – while an unspoken truth for many providers – is neatly disguised in the ease, speed and accessibility self-published authors can get their books to market. If I ran an author solutions operation and told you your book would be published, but it could only be bought by men (excluding 50% of your readers), and only by men with dark hair (brown or black) – would you pay me to publish your book? Hardly, but that’s a little like what thousands and thousands of self-published authors do every day when choosing a solutions provider. They limit the opportunity for their book to potentially reach the widest reading audience possible. Some providers in recent years – just like traditional publishers – release a book in various ebook formats, as well as a print edition. Nice, but it is a second distraction underpinning the original lie that your book will reach the widest reading audience possible.
Your book cannot reach the maximum amount of potential readers if:

  • Your provider only utilizes POD (print on demand)
  • Your provider only makes your book ‘available’ through book wholesalers
  • Your provider does not have physical books warehoused with a distributor
  • Your provider does not have a distributor with dedicated sales representatives selling to bookstore buyers
  • Your provider does not have wholesaler/distributor partnerships in other territories
  • Your provider does not have direct sales to customer facilities
  • Your provider sells author services and not books
  • Your provider prices your book above market competition
  • Your provider does not utilize traditional and online marketing
  • Your provider does not publish your book in all ebook formats
  • Your provider does not promote engagement with your readers
Dependent on the territory your book is published in, traditional print sales still make up anything between 50-80% of its overall sales. So, it begs the question why you would want to limit the sales of your book to just two or three of every ten potential readers? Self-publishing should be a welcome alternative to the traditional path of publishing but not a compromise on quality or opportunity and too many self-published authors still see it that way.
Shatzkin posits in the second part of his quote if publishers can add value to a marketing campaign mainly driven by social media. It is unclear if he is referring to publishers in very general terms – meaning a publisher or service provider adopting non-traditional methods of marketing – but, apart from exclusively epublishers and small niche presses, the answer to me is clearly no. If I’m an author playing my part in a social media campaign, then to me that is worth more than a 10-25% royalty share on profits. I’ve likely already got the social media tools in place and I’ve been building my readership/platform before my publisher decided it was skilled enough to get in on the action.
By all means my publisher should be a facilitator, but only if it can provide more than the platform I already have to engage and stimulate readers. That means going one step further – converting that social media presence I’ve created into something real and tangible; be it author events and invitations to speak or recite my work. Remember; social media marketing needs to lead to word-of-mouth, real connection and sales – not a make-believe virtual world that saps the time I need to write. I’m not sure many publishers have reached that stage of development yet when it comes to social media. It’s still a work-in-progress. 
I’ve said before on these pages that self-publishing is a business and you have to understand how a business works and how publishing works before you can dare to bend or change the rules to suit your own application of it. If you have no aspirations of selling thousands of books and want to self-publish for pleasure, then go ahead. There has never been a better time and opportunity to do it. But understand, if you adopt someone else’s rules, it is at your peril. The world of publishing is changing and that includes self-publishing. The industry is still just starting to grow its content into new digital markets and while the opportunities are greater for writers, I don’t believe the pie is that much bigger at the moment. It’s certainly not the time to entertain a Luddite mentality or grasp hold of old conventions while casting off a new way to do what we have always done no matter how imperfect it first seems.    

Enhanced by Zemanta

Leave a Reply