Friday, July 24, 2009

I don't know how much social networking helps to sell books.

This morning I went through my Facebook page and dropped at least half a dozen people I don't know at all from my "friends" list. They're authors or people connected to the book world who sent me friend requests, and I accepted those requests out of politeness more than anything else.

Being their Facebook "friend" didn't make me any more interested in them, and certainly didn't make me any more interested in their books. After seeing the umpteenth status update from a complete stranger who just wanted me to buy something from her, I decided it was time to stop the charade.

I'm coming up on - ack - ten years as an all-purpose bookperson -- bookseller, publicist, editor, researcher, reader, etc. -- and what William Goldman says about the movie business applies to publishing as well: "No one knows anything." I've developed some opinions based on my observations, though, and offer them for what they're worth.

While 95% of the authors I know are kind and interesting people, they went into literature instead of sales for a reason. The qualities that make someone a good author -- detachment, acute observation, judgment, bluntness -- may also make him or her socially awkward, and that awkwardness doesn't go away because someone hits the bestseller list. Introverts don't suddenly become extroverts when they go on book tour.

That makes the social networking sites -- Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. -- especially attractive, because they seem to offer all the benefits of touring without the inconvenience or anxiety. But this is an illusion, with implications for bookselling and book reading that concern me.

Any book is a conversation between an author and reader -- a one-sided conversation. Social networking makes it possible to open that conversation both ways, but it also takes out the medium of communication. That is, if you can have a direct conversation with an author, are you more or less likely to want that indirect communication through a book? I'd say no more likely, and possibly even less likely, as the primary sense of connection transfers from the books to the author.

That sense of connection, once transferred from the book to the author, then sets up expectations of intimacy and obligation that can interfere with the simple commercial transaction of buying a book in a store. I've noticed this among some authors with large online followings; these online followings include surprisingly big and assertive groups of online reviewers who feel entitled to free copies of books and other considerations once offered only to brick-and-mortar booksellers.

Online reviews and buzz are important, of course, but the traditional model of bookselling was one in which the publishers dealt with bookstores, leaving the author alone to write the next book. The publishing industry has changed and is changing; publishers have slashed the staffs that used to work with bookstores, as the bookstores are declining in number. Now the authors themselves are handselling directly to readers, expecting the readers to buy through online warehouses instead of through traditional bookstores. Authors' social networking is just one more thing chipping away at the traditional role of bookstores as intermediaries -- yes, you can argue that they've been forced into this, but the effect is the same, and it's killing bookstores.

It's getting to a point that's unsustainable, and the growth of self-publishing and electronic readers is accelerating that breaking point. Readers and consumers, overwhelmed with choices, will throw up their hands and give up. I'm almost at that point myself, where I'm just reading things that are shoved in front of me rather than seeking out the books and authors I actually want to read -- to say nothing of going to the trouble of finding any new authors.

To that end, this morning's culling of my Facebook list was a step toward reasserting my control over my reading habits, and a decision that I want to get my reading recommendations from the old sources -- my favorite bookstores and my friends -- rather than from the authors themselves.

Your mileage may vary, and I realize I'm opening a can of worms here. If you're an author with a different experience, or solid evidence of the translation of social networking into sales, leave your comments below.


dannyjames said...

This is a GREAT and very important post AG. I'm also worried about "flooding the market" with too many choices. As a writer, I think it's great to get my book out there. But there are parallels to the music industry that the book biz should take notice of. In music, the "choice conundrum" is a byproduct of easy access to music, cheap/free music, compounded by technology that makes it easier for those with some talent (or no talent at all) to produce, distribute and market music. The result is too many choices, not enough filters and confusion in the marketplace that results often in buyer apathy. How to keep the talent afloat in a sea of options is something authors, publishers and consumers should all be concerned about.

AnswerGirl said...

That word "filter" is key, Dan -- that's the service that independent bookstores provide, and I really do think that it's going to be more important rather than less, as the market continues to become more broad and less deep. How bookstores can make sure they're compensated for that service is another question for another day...

larry said...


I don't know the answer to your question, but I will take advantage of the opportunity to use your blog to promote my friend Rebecca Cantrell's first novel, "A Trace of Smoke." This is an excellent work by a person deserving all the success that comes her way.

AnswerGirl said...

I met Rebecca at last year's Thrillerfest, and am very much looking forward to reading her book ... after I finish Gregg Hurwitz's, Theresa Schwegel's, and the one Chuck Hogan wrote with Guillermo del Toro.

Laura Benedict said...

It's a hell of a mess, everyone throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. Dizzying.

Excellent observations, as usual!

AnswerGirl said...

I should clarify -- based on a real-life conversation I had yesterday -- that I think sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter can be very useful for organizations (bookstores, associations, etc.), as what they provide is a virtual clubhouse, which the members themselves seek out.

This use sidesteps one of my big problems with the use of social networking as a direct marketing tool by writers: the confusion that arises from the blurring of "fan" and "friend," which I've seen lead to frustration, disappointment, and hard feelings.